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Why our JPs don’t need law degrees

August 6, 2014   ·   0 Comments

VETERAN JOURNALISTS have long regarded July and August as our annual “silly season,” when most of the real news has dried up. That may explain why the Toronto Star ran an article on July 25 disclosing once again (having done so as recently as last summer) that Ontario’s justices of the peace aren’t required to have a law degree or any legal training beyond a six-week course.

“They preside over some of the heaviest legal caseloads in the country, ruling innocence or guilt as many as 60 times per day,” the article began. It went on to note that in recent days Ontario judges had heard two cases of judicial misconduct involving justices of the peace. In one, an appeal court overturned a traffic conviction after observing that the JP was “biased against the defence,” whose case was “being sacrificed on the alter of expediency.” In the other, a judicial review council was prepared to reprimand a JP whose admitted misconduct included denying a man a fair trial and throwing out 68 cases en masse because a city prosecutor was 71 seconds late for a hearing.

As might be expected, the article brought lots of letters to the editor, with most writers supporting the notion that all JPs ought to have law degrees.

However, one was from Toronto lawyer James Morton, a senior litigator who happens to act as counsel for the Association of Justices of the Peace of Ontario. As published, it reads:

“The suggestion that the Justice of the Peace bench is not competent and law degrees ought to be a prerequisite to appointment is not borne out by the facts.

“Certainly there are errors made by JPs but such are extraordinarily rare when viewed against the number of matters dealt with by them yearly. Since 2007 there have been 10 formal complaint hearings against JPs – that’s less than two complaints a year. And yet JPs hear hundreds of thousands of matters a year.

“A law degree does not confer special reasoning powers on a lawyer. Justices of the Peace bring a valuable and diverse experience to the bench and have proven competent over many years.

“The system works and does not need changes.”

We’re inclined to agree, with one caveat.

As we see it, the three most important qualification for anyone acting as a JP are an open mind, some experience in weighing pros and cons and lots of patience.

Clearly, the task includes dealing with serious issues, including whether to grant bail to persons accused of serious offences, which these days can include murder and terrorism.

Bur it wasn’t at all surprising when John Creelman, a JP who had no legal experience per se, rose to become regional senior JP for the court system’s Central West Region, which includes Mississauga and Pearson International Airport.

In our view, Mr. Creelman was ideally suited for the job, and not just because he once was a Citizen columnist. Well-educated and author of a report that proposed a median for Orangeville’s Broad-way, he later served on Dufferin County Council, including a term as warden, and spearheaded Mono’s incorporation as a town.

Newspapers of the day show that most of the legal matters encountered locally in the 19th century were handled initially by lay magistrates who held court speedily in every small town.

In fact, it was only after the Second World War that Ontario phased out its system of lay magistrates and began to require newly appointed provincial court judges to have legal experience. And we’ve yet to see it proven that the decision-making improved.

Our caveat: we need a means of weeding out JPs who are biased or impatient.

         

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