There are various rules governing the use of French and English within the Canadian judicial system. This Background Paper focuses on the federal government’s role in the matter, looking particularly at the issues relating to bilingualism within the Canadian court system.
There are a number of different acts that govern the administration of justice in the two official languages, including the Constitution Act, 1867, Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Official Languages Act. In addition to these constitutional and legislative obligations, there are a number of other acts and regulations that establish specific criteria for the respect of the official languages by federal courts.
Canada’s justice system is both bilingual and bijural, and federal courts are called on to interpret legislation that reflects these realities. The French and English versions of federal legislation have equal force of law and are co‑drafted such that they are of equal value.
The very nature of the operations of federal courts accords an important place to the use of French and English, with respect to submissions as well as communications and proceedings. In order to permit litigants to exercise their language rights, translation and simultaneous interpretation services are offered under certain conditions.
Finally, the judgments of federal courts are made available in both official languages. However, there are still obstacles to making them available simultaneously or to ensuring that both language versions are of the same quality. The delays associated with the translation of some judgments from courts other than the Supreme Court of Canada have fed the demand to clarify the obligations arising from the Official Languages Act.
Criminal law is a special case, because the use of official languages is governed by the Criminal Code. Under that code, the accused is entitled to a trial in the official language of his or her choice anywhere in Canada and is entitled to have the indictments and criminal information translated. This requires courts that deal with criminal affairs to be institutionally bilingual.
Despite the existing obligations, full implementation of judicial bilingualism is still not assured. The appointment of bilingual judges, both in the superior courts and provincial and territorial courts of appeal as well as in the Supreme Court of Canada, provokes numerous debates.
In recent years, the federal government has taken measures to compensate for the lack of bilingual capacity in the federal judiciary. Despite these measures, there is increasing pressure to make legislative changes to achieve a bilingual judiciary. The debates on the modernization of the Official Languages Act were an opportunity to focus on the current challenges and what is still to be done to ensure equal access, for all Canadians, to a justice system in both official languages.
The right to be heard in the official language of one’s choice without the use of an interpreter has already been fueling parliamentary debates for several years. Offering language training to all justice professionals and assessing their language abilities form part of the solutions envisaged to improve equitable access to the justice system. Improvements were also made, during the 42nd Parliament, to the protection of language rights in the criminal law and family law sectors.
Access to justice in both official languages is an issue that calls directly for cooperation between the federal and provincial governments and all actors in the justice system. The federal government is also aware of the challenges to be met in this area and, for more than a decade and a half, has offered funding to increase networks’ capacities, improve training and facilitate access to justice services in both official languages. The objective is to ensure equal access to services of equal quality for francophones and anglophones in Canada. Some would like to see this take the form of a well‑defined legislative obligation.
The rules governing bilingualism in the Canadian court system will continue to evolve in the years to come in response to case law, legislative changes and changing attitudes within Canadian society. The debates on the modernization of the Official Languages Act – a bill to achieve this end is slated to be tabled by the end of the 43rd Parliament – will be an opportunity to debate these issues.
Read the full text of the Background Paper: Bilingualism in Canada’s Court System: The Role of the Federal Government
Author: Marie-Ève Hudon, Library of Parliament