Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Justice of the Peace Bench

Defending the Bench

The Justice of the Peace Bench has become thoroughly professional and is a highly trained and skilled body of adjudicators.

The ancient office of justice of the peace is one of great honour and responsibility. In 1195, Richard I ("the Lionheart") of England commissioned certain knights to preserve the peace in unruly areas. They were responsible to Richard for ensuring that the law was upheld, and preserved the "King's Peace," and were the first Justices of the Peace.

Over time the policing role diminished and justices were chosen as being persons of standing and wisdom in the community. Their judicial function remains a vital part of the administration of justice in Ontario. Justices of the peace are the gatekeepers for the system and are, to a large extent, the public face of justice in Ontario.

Despite the honour there may, in fact, be some justices of the peace who do not measure up to the high standards required. The likely removal of a very few does not suggest a failure of the Bench -- in fact, it shows the high standards expected of all justices of the peace.

In Ontario, justices of the peace must have a university degree, or equivalent, and a minimum of 10 years work experience. They are appointed following careful vetting by an arms-length non partisan appointments committee similar in structure to that used for the appointment of Ontario Court of Justice judges.

The annual income for a justice of the peace is uniform and is only slightly greater than $100,000 a year -- and while that's a good income, it's not a fortune.

Many justices of the peace willingly gave up far more lucrative positions in the professions or business to serve Ontario.

While justices of the peace do not have to have legal training many do and, regardless, all new appointments undergo a rigorous training cycle. After initial training justices of the peace have a continuing legal education process. Having been involved with the ongoing legal education of justices of the peace, I can attest to their professionalism and dedication to knowing the law they apply. This legal background is needed because they perform significant and complex duties.
The Criminal Code and the Ontario Provincial Offences Act confer jurisdiction upon a justice of the peace, but there are many other federal and provincial statutes and regulations that empower justices of the peace with legal jurisdiction.

The two main areas of jurisdiction for justices of the peace are criminal law and provincial offences.

Justices of the peace preside over virtually all bail hearings and the majority of criminal remand courts. They also receive informations (the document which commences a criminal proceeding), confirm or consider the issuance of criminal process, and are responsible for the denial or issuance of search warrants. It is fair to say justices of the peace form the backbone of the criminal justice system.

Justices of the peace exercise jurisdiction over the majority of provincial regulatory offences and municipal by-law prosecutions. As in criminal proceedings, justices of the peace receive informations and warrant applications, consider the issuance of process and preside at hearings and trials.

Sometimes justices of the peace err and are overturned on review or appeal but, in fairness, that is the fate of some decisions of Superior Court judges; indeed, even the Court of Appeal is overturned from time to time. In general justices of the peace know the law they apply and know it well.

There are approximately 325 justices of the peace in Ontario. They sit across the entire province and are a truly diverse bench. Justices of the peace come from all backgrounds, races and religions and there is close to true gender balance, especially for more recent appointments. Justices of the peace genuinely reflect the people of Ontario; they are a bench the province can respect and be proud of.

James Morton is a past president of the Ontario Bar Association and teaches evidence at Osgoode Hall Law School. He has lectured to justices of the peace in Ottawa and Toronto.


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