05/31/2012 09:47 EDT | Updated 07/31/2012 05:12 EDT

Bill would raise qualifications for Ontario justices of the peace

TORONTO - A high-profile criminal defence lawyer is throwing his support behind a move to raise the qualification standards for Ontario justices of the peace.

The proposed legislation is needed because JPs make important decisions, such as whether a person is released on bail, said Brian Greenspan, a 40-year veteran of the courts.

"Quite frankly, the most significant decision that a judge or judicial officer must make is the liberty of the person," he said.

"And we have left to justices of the peace the initial bail hearing for most people in this province."

Liberal backbencher David Orazietti introduced the private member's bill Thursday that would reinstate two levels of JPs in Ontario — presiding JPs and administrative JPs. It would require JPs who preside over legal cases to have a recognized law degree and at least five years' experience practicing as a lawyer.

Only 10 per cent of the 345 full-time JPs in the province have law degrees, he said.

Currently, the minimum qualifications may include a university degree or college diploma and 10 years of paid or volunteer work experience, he said.

JPs, who are appointed by the government and are paid on average $120,652 a year, are required to take a seven-week training program and a mentoring program that can last up to six months.

The bill wouldn't affect current JPs, but that may be up for debate in committee if the bill passes second reading, Orazietti said.

Justices of the peace perform a wide range of functions and duties, which are becoming more complex, he said.

They virtually all provincial offences trials, issue the vast majority of search warrants, conduct almost all bail hearings and generally preside in first appearance and remand criminal courts, he said.

His bill doesn't propose to end the appointment of JPs by the government, however.

"At the end of the day, this is not about political patronage and political appointments. This is about an important structure in our democratic society, which is our court system," Orazietti said.

"It's about doing the right thing and making sure we have a level of qualification in the system by individuals who are adjudicating these matters that are aptly qualified to perform those functions."

But the Association of Justices of the Peace of Ontario say the reforms are actually an "ineffective" step backwards.

Ontario abolished its two-class system of JPs about 10 years ago because it was too cumbersome, said James Morton, a lawyer, professor and counsel to the association.

"It was eliminated as part of the plan to modernize the justice of the peace bench and frankly, it's worked pretty well since the changes was made," he said.

The proposed reforms would likely increase administrative costs, as more staff would need to be hired to deal with the difficulties in scheduling two classes of JPs.

The new qualifications also mirror those of Masters of the Superior Court, on the civil side, who are paid about $70,000 more than JPs, he said.

Attorney General John Gerretsen said he's not "diametrically opposed" to the proposed reforms and would review the bill. Private member's bills rarely become law unless the government decides to support or adopt it.

"There's no question about it, that justices of the peace have a much greater responsibility than they did five, 10, 20 years ago," Gerretsen said.

He said the government has set up an advisory committee that advertises for JP positions as required, which is similar to the system of appointment for judges.

"As far as this bill is concerned, we'll take a look at it and there may be some good ideas in it," he said.

Other provinces — such as Quebec, Alberta, Nova Scotia and British Columbia — have several categories of JPs, depending on their qualifications, Orazietti said. But that's led to more paperwork and delays, Morton argued.

Ian Greene, a professor at Toronto's York University, said the Supreme Court agreed in 2003 that requiring JPs to have a legal education enhances judicial independence and the quality of justice.

Ontario's top court concluded 15 years ago that a bench comprised of lawyers as well as non-lawyers is satisfactory and poses no compentency issues, Morton said.

It's important to have JPs who aren't lawyers because it brings a fresh perspective to the judicial system, he said.

"Most people, when they deal with the justice system, they're not dealing with judges in the Court of Appeal, they're dealing with justices of the peace," Morton said.