01/27/2015 09:06 EST | Updated 03/29/2015 05:59 EDT

Human rights commission lawyer Philippe Dufresne to serve as House law clerk

A human rights lawyer whose former employer once tried to convince the Supreme Court that Parliament Hill staff should enjoy the same workplace protection as all federally regulated employees is now in charge of safeguarding parliamentary privilege for the House of Commons.

In a written statement released on Monday night, Government House Leader Peter Van Loan announced that Philippe Dufresne has been appointed House of Commons law clerk and parliamentary counsel.

The post has been vacant since the last clerk, Richard Fujarczuk, resigned last February, just nine months into his term.

"Canada's House of Commons, as the elected national legislature of a leading developed democracy, is seen as a model to the world," Van Loan noted in the statement.

"Over the decades, brilliant, capable clerks have helped parliamentarians make it that way."

He added that thirteen previous law clerks have served in the position since Confederation.

"Mr. Dufresne's contributions will undoubtedly follow in their footsteps," he predicted.

According to the backgrounder provided by Van Loan's office, Dufresne comes from the Canadian Human Rights Commission, where he has worked since 2000 — most recently as senior counsel and director general at the Protection Branch.

New clerk involved in landmark privilege case

It was during his tenure at the human rights commission that Dufresne served as co-counsel in the the landmark Supreme Court decision in Canada (House of Commons) v. Vaid.

In that case, the commission argued that it should have the power to investigate workplace discrimination complaints lodged by former House Speaker Gilbert Parent's driver.

In its 2005 ruling, the court noted that the commission had said it was "unthinkable that Parliament would seek to deny its employees the benefit of labour and human rights protections which Parliament itself has imposed on every other federal employer."

Ultimately, however, it sided with the House of Commons, concluding, while the commission may indeed have the right to look into allegations of systemic discrimination within the parliamentary precinct, in this particular case, the "enforcement mechanisms of the Canadian Human Rights Act … simply do not apply."

His experience at the high court may provide Dufresne with crucial insight as he takes up his new post.

The issue of harassment on the Hill — and particularly the lack of legal protection or recourse for MPs and political staffers — has been a focal point of parliamentary discussion since last fall, when misconduct complaints against MPs Scott Andrews and Massimo Pacetti were lodged by two still unnamed New Democrat MPs

In December, the House agreed to set up a special Commons subcommittee to look into the issue, and to come up with recommendations for an MP code of conduct. 

Dufresne also had a brief stint at Foreign Affairs, where he was responsible for "matters related to international criminal tribunal."

As a student, he worked as a tour guide on Parliament Hill tour.

Dufresne will take up his new post on February 9.

In a memo to MPs, Speaker Andrew Scheer welcomed Dufresne to the Commons.

He also paid tribute to deputy law clerk Richard Denis "for his commitment, wise counsel and fine work" over the past year, during which time he served as interim head of the office.