Iqaluit trial grinds to halt because judge does not speak French
“This is his absolute right under Canadian law”
A trial in Iqaluit was forced to grind to a halt last week, after lawyers involved in the case discovered the trial’s judge did not speak French.
The Nunavut Court of Justice in Iqaluit holds court dates in French a few times a year. On the 2019 docket, there are three separate weeks listed as French court weeks.
Gabriel Choquette of Iqaluit was scheduled to go to trial for impaired driving charges on Wednesday, Oct. 2.
Choquette had requested that his trial be conducted in French.
In his ruling the following morning, Oct. 3, Justice Paul Jeffrey said the trial could not continue without a French-speaking judge.
“This is his absolute right under Canadian law,” Jeffrey told the court.
Section 530 of Canada’s Criminal Code states that the accused has the right to a trial in Canada’s official language of their choice, either English or French.
Prior to Jeffrey’s ruling, Jean-Pierre Rancourt, Choquette’s lawyer, argued that Choquette’s charges should be stayed, meaning the trial should be suspended.
Crown lawyer Philippe Plourde argued the trial should be postponed until the next French court week.
“The Crown is seeking an adjournment of this trial matter, not for a reason due to the Crown or the availability of Crown witnesses, but because of the fact that the court did not make a French-speaking judge available for the purpose of this trial,” he added.
“In my view, an adjournment is warranted in this case. It would not bring the administration of justice into disrepute,” Jeffrey said.
Rancourt argued that postponing the trial would be unfair to Choquette, who has already paid for Rancourt’s legal services and would need to pay again if the trial was moved. As Rancourt is based on Montreal, the cost is much higher to Choquette than paying for a local lawyer, Rancourt said.
“Even if there is no trial or he has to pay because I spent time here and I cannot afford not to be paid. So that will be very unfair,” Rancourt said.
The error, while damaging to Choquette, appears to be an isolated incident, Jeffrey said in his ruling.
“The cause of the prejudice in this case is not unreasonable delay. It is not denial of the right to trial in the official language of the accused. It is not the failure to make available a French-speaking judge for trial.
“It is the court’s failure to notify Mr. Choquette that it knew a trial in French would no longer be available,” Jeffrey said. “That failure is the focus of my consideration of whether this shabby treatment of Mr. Choquette is likely to continue.”
Choquette had requested an earlier date for his trial, but Rancourt said he was told a French-speaking judge would not be in Iqaluit until Oct. 2.
“Sometime after that February court appearance and before Oct. 2, the court administrators learned that the expected French-speaking judge was no longer coming to sit in Iqaluit. Regrettably, this development was not communicated to the parties,” Jeffrey said.
Rancourt said he found out there was no French-speaking judge less than 48 hours before the trial was set to begin. Plourde also said he was informed by court administration only shortly before the trial date.
“We were sure that we could proceed in front of the judge and all the staff in French,” Rancourt told the court.
Rancourt added that he has been coming to Nunavut for court dates for 26 years, and “every time there’s a French judge,” he said.
Jeffrey said he had known he was coming to Iqaluit for court for “a couple of months now.”
“This is a situation that is extremely unfortunate because the court waited until, I would say past the last minute, to advise counsel,” Plourde said.
“What we’re dealing with today is the fact that we cannot proceed with the trial,” Plourde added.
Rancourt said he would need to speak to Choquette to decide if he wanted to keep him as his lawyer, considering he would need to pay for Rancourt to return to Iqaluit.
After reading his ruling, Jeffrey adjourned the trial to the next French court date, Nov. 28.
According to the 2016 census from Statistics Canada, 400 Iqaluit residents said French was their mother tongue.