Staff shortages in the courts are a “disaster” that could lead to a collapse in service if the government doesn’t act quickly, the chief justice of the Quebec Supreme Court has warned.
“We are going through a crisis, a catastrophe. At the moment we are managing to plug the holes, but at some point we will no longer be able to perform miracles,” chief referee Jacques Fournier said in an interview with Le protocol.
For more than two years, the magistrate has criticized the government for the lack of court officials, especially court clerks and assistants who are crucial for the smooth functioning of the judiciary. But despite all his efforts to raise awareness, the situation only got worse.
Courtrooms open late almost every day or remain closed for lack of court officials.
Just last week, a scammer went home instead of going to jail. The following day, an 87-year-old high-ranking victim of a violent robbery was unable to testify at a defendant’s trial because of staff shortages. So she went home not knowing when to return.
“It’s dramatic for the litigants, the magistrate regrets. Waiting for a life-changing decision causes anxiety. »
The reasons for the lack of staff do not have to be searched for long. With a maximum annual salary of $45,000, Quebec has difficulty recruiting employees who make $20,000 more at the local level, and even more at the federal or private levels.
“The clerks are at the center of a stressful hustle and bustle, that’s not easy,” insists the chief judge.
The judge’s assistants, who have special skills, also switch to positions in which the remuneration is cheaper.
Role Masters, who are a bit like the nervous system of the system, can sometimes leave their job in just a few months before they’ve even developed their expertise.
“It needs people who have a good education, but they don’t come,” complains the chief judge. And as soon as there is a competition in the city [où les conditions sont meilleures], They go. With housing issues in Montreal, not many assistants can afford to rent in the metropolis. »
However, the recipe for overcoming the problem is not complicated, he says. What is needed is for the government to offer better salaries to all the shadow officials who run the justice system.
“The Treasury must recognize this,” he said, recalling that the government has an obligation to support the judiciary. Employees need to feel valued, and one way to do that is by paying them decently. »
So unless the government starts offering at least decent salaries to the workers, the crisis will continue until it reaches breaking point.
“The ball is in the Treasury Board,” he concludes, warning that in two years it will be too late.
No government action to solve the court staff shortage crisis has worked, affirmed the chief justice of the Quebec Court, warning that the current situation is “unsustainable”.
“We know that no initiative has so far succeeded in counteracting the large number of assistants leaving and alleviating the recruitment problems,” says a letter from Chief Justice Lucie Rondeau, our investigation office, received at the end of March.
Like her counterpart on the Quebec Supreme Court, she says one of the solutions is to offer employees “reasonable compensation” commensurate with the “many responsibilities they are assuming.”
But even when the courts were assured that their comments had been submitted to the Treasury, nothing was done.
“The Chief Justices have learned that the new salary conditions for judicial assistants will be known later as part of the signing of the next collective agreement for the public service union,” she explains, explaining that this is a disappointment given the urgency of the situation.
If understaffing in the courts endangers the justice system, so does security in the palaces, with a glaring shortage of special police officers. These are armed officers who provide security in the palaces after training at the National Police School of Quebec.
“Every week the union hears about the resignation of members,” complains the president of their union organization, Franck Perales.
The situation is so serious that in some regional courts there are no longer any, leaving the court staff defenseless despite the presence of criminals.
In her absence, a judge has even ordered a defendant to go to jail alone after receiving a sentence.
And like judicial auxiliaries, money is at stake, as the Ministry of Public Security pays them well below what the police offer.
– With Kathryne Lamontagne