Recipe for a JP
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Tuesday, December 31, 2002  Print Edition, Page A10


Are justices of the peace a weak link in the justice system? If that seems a leading question, not to mention an insult to JPs, consider the background.

The JP's job is, in part, to decide whether the police have reasonable grounds to search a person's home and seize property; whether someone accused of an offence should be released on bail; and whether people should pay fines and be jailed for non-payment.

You would expect a job with such power to go to people with a good degree of legal knowledge and experience with the justice system. However, as The Globe's Kirk Makin wrote yesterday, you can't count on it.

Justices of the peace are for the most part laypeople. They are plucked from the list of applicants by an attorney-general who, in Ontario for instance, runs them by a committee to make sure there are no obvious objections. While the justices receive some training and mentoring after they are selected, their qualifications may be as slight as having been somebody's good friend.

They may transcend this liability. Many others may indeed be highly qualified and/or admirably hard-working and conscientious. But the loose requirements have the air of a gamble in an area -- deciding on people's liberties -- where the system should not be gambling. This year, for instance, an Ontario JP abruptly ordered that people be arrested because their lawyers didn't show up for a routine proceeding; she was rebuked by a higher court for "a travesty of justice." In a couple of high-profile murder cases, JPs ordered publication bans without any legal foundation. Those aren't our words; they're the words of the judges who overturned both bans.

Alberta wants every JP to have a law degree, and will argue its case before the Supreme Court of Canada. We don't know whether a law degree is necessary, but those whose liberty is at stake should have a better guarantee than they now do that JPs aren't winging it.

 


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