Criminal defence lawyers worry the Ford government is stacking Ontario's courts with ideological allies, after making it easier to do so earlier in its term.
The government appointed 41 new justices of the peace to the Ontario Court of Justice on Monday. Nearly 40 per cent of them have worked in law enforcement, corrections, border services or the Canadian Armed Forces.
It's hard for an accused person to have faith that they will receive a fair trial when the person deciding their fate "will be making decisions about whether individuals that their colleagues have arrested make bail, or whether they wait months in Ontario's Dickensian jails," Ottawa criminal lawyer Michael Spratt said.
There is a "definite theme" to the appointments, said John Struthers, the president of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association of Ontario.
"There is no doubt that ideological alignment has become a prerequisite to appointment."
Justices of the peace are part of Ontario's judiciary, like judges, but they do not need to have any legal experience. They preside over some criminal law matters and provincial offence trials, including almost all bail hearings in Ontario, and trials dealing with provincial statutes like the Highway Traffic Act, the Trespass to Property Act, the Environmental Protection Act, and more.
They can also grant search and seizure warrants, preside over bail hearings, issue summonses, and deal with peace bond applications, among many other judicial powers.
They earn $141,000 a year.
Six of the appointees also have names that match recent Progressive Conservative donors: Robert Clayton, Elizabeth Garg, Pete Karageorgeos, Sylvie Lapointe, Lawrence Smith (alternate result) and Douglas White (alternate result).
White is also listed as an Ontario Green Party donor, and Smith is shown as also donating to the Ontario Liberals. Another name matching an appointee, Jennifer Martin, is listed as a donor to the Green Party only.
QP Briefing reached out to several appointees whose names matched donors through publicly available emails, and received an email from the Ontario Court of Justice saying the new justices "respectfully decline to comment."
Attorney General Doug Downey's office did not respond to a request for comment, including on whether those appointees are in fact PC donors.
The Ford government made changes to the way justices of the peace were appointed in an omnibus COVID-19 bill in 2020.
The attorney general selects appointees from a list of names provided by the Justices of the Peace Appointments Advisory Committee (JPAAC), an arm's-length group. The government increased the size of that list from two names to six. The attorney general can reject the list and ask for six new names, as it was able to do with the two-person list.
Critics say the larger applicant pool allows the government to more easily select political allies.
On The Agenda in 2019, Downey said having more names to choose from would speed up appointments and allow for more diversity on the bench. But he also said he wanted to choose people who think like him.
"There are two parts to the appointment of judges. One is to decide whether they're qualified or not qualified. And that's really important. But the second part is for me to pick people who reflect some of the values that I have," he said.
"We shouldn’t be surprised when they do what they say they’re going to do," Spratt said.
He said Ontario's judicial selection system has been heralded around the world for its non-partisan, transparent decision-making.
"And to see that crumble under the buffoonery of this government is deeply problematic," he said.
A QP Briefing investigation found several recent JPAAC appointments are involved in Conservative politics, including current chair Michael Ras, a lobbyist and candidate for the federal Conservative party in the next election.
Previous JPAAC chair Andrew Suboch resigned in 2019 after it was revealed he was longtime friends with Premier Doug Ford’s former chief of staff Dean French, who departed after numerous patronage scandals.
Some of the appointments announced Monday may be qualified individuals, but it's impossible to say, Spratt said.
“It pains me to say this as a lawyer, but these 41 JPs are all tainted by that brush,” he said.
The sheer number of new appointments is also raising concerns of stacking. Spratt said 41 at once "must be a record."
Struthers called it "an astonishingly large number."
Downey's office did not say whether or not it was a record.
The new appointees' terms begin July 8.
Update: After the initial publication of this story, a spokesperson for Minister Doug Downey issued a statement to QP Briefing.
Natasha Krstajic noted that the government has not changed the qualifications for a justice of the peace, and that Downey may only recommend candidates who the JPAAC has classified as “recommended” or “highly recommended."
"The government has full confidence in the independent work of the Justices of the Peace Appointments Advisory Committee to assess candidates’ suitability for appointment," she said.
She said the changes have resulted in greater speed, transparency and diversity.
"The recent appointment of 41 Justices of the Peace reflect a pool a diverse candidates," she said. "By filling justices of the peace vacancies more quickly, Ontarians will benefit from a justice system that responds to the needs of people navigating the legal process."