11/20/2013 02:54 EST | Updated 01/25/2014 04:01 EST

Panel investigating judge's nude photos resigns, inquiry back at Square 1

WINNIPEG - Members of a panel investigating a Manitoba judge whose nude photos ended up on the Internet have taken the unprecedented step of resigning en masse, potentially putting the inquiry back to where it began three years ago.

The committee of the Canadian Judicial Council, including three chief justices, said the resignations are the best way to have one of the longest inquiries in the council's history proceed.

"In the normal course, by now the committee would have concluded its hearings, prepared its report and forwarded it to the Canadian Judicial Council for consideration. As matters have transpired, more than two years have now gone by and the hearings have not been completed," the committee wrote in explaining its resignation.

"In light of recent events, it has become apparent that this committee as presently constituted will not be in a position to complete its inquiry and submit its report to the council for a very extended period of time. Even further delays and costs are unavoidable."

The committee has been examining Manitoba Queen's Bench Justice Lori Douglas, who faced a complaint in 2010 that she sexually harassed a man named Alex Chapman. Chapman alleged that Douglas's husband had shown him sexually explicit photos of the judge and had posted the pictures online.

The judicial council hearings bogged down when Douglas's lawyer alleged the committee appeared to be biased against her client. A federal court justice put the inquiry on hold in July pending a judicial review of the lawyer's allegation.

The committee noted that the judicial review could take several years before all appeals are exhausted.

"If this process is to work as Parliament intended, it is imperative that there be no ability to interrupt an inquiry with litigation in another court that spawns its own further litigation and takes the process ever further away from the object of the inquiry. This is not in the public interest," the committee wrote.

"A knowledgeable public would think that a judicial conduct process has been created which is, by its nature, doomed to delay, wasted costs, confusion, inconsistency and perhaps, in the end, failure. And it would be hard to disagree with them."

It's now up to the judicial council to appoint a new committee and either resume or restart the hearing. Norman Sabourin, the council's executive director, said Douglas could choose to resign of her own volition or the council can appoint a new committee.

"If there is a new inquiry committee, I think it would be very difficult not to start over," Sabourin said. "Essentially it would be a new committee, a new hearing starting essentially from scratch."

Calls to Douglas's lawyer, Sheila Block, were not immediately returned.

Karen Busby, professor with the University of Manitoba's faculty of law, said the resignation of an entire committee is unprecedented. She said there were serious issues hanging over the proceedings.

"No Canadian Judicial Council panel has ever resigned," she said. "It's highly unusual for a panel to resign. It just doesn't happen," said Busby.

"It's just not fair to the judge for this to continue on the way that it's continuing on, so I think the honourable thing for them to do was to resign and to have a new panel appointed and let them get on with their work."

The saga began in 2010 when Chapman filed a complaint with the council accusing Douglas of sexual harassment. Chapman alleged the judge's husband, Winnipeg lawyer Jack King, sent him nude photos of his wife and wanted Chapman to have sex with her.

King was representing Chapman in a divorce case at the time. After Chapman complained to King's law firm, King settled the matter by paying Chapman $25,000 to return all the photos and never discuss the matter.

The inquiry was also supposed to examine whether Douglas failed to disclose the matter when she was appointed a judge in 2005 and if the photos should disqualify her from sitting on the bench.

Douglas, who rose to become associate chief justice of the Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench, has denied all allegations. Both she and King have said he acted alone without her knowledge and was suffering from depression at the time.

Douglas is on paid leave and she is still married to King.