Vintage Rathgeber

When an Alberta MLA challenged the justice minister
Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber stands during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 21, 2011. Rathgeber is sounding off against the expensive perks given to cabinet ministers.THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Sean Kilpatrick

As he and I discussed yesterday, Brent Rathgeber’s general belief that a government backbencher can be something other than a public cheerleader dates to his time as an MLA in Alberta. He quibbled, for instance, with the government’s changes to auto insurance.

And here, from Question Period in the Alberta legislature on April 29, 2003, a government backbencher quizzes the justice minister.

Mr. Rathgeber: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. For some time now the Minister of Justice has been promoting the idea of a single trial court as a catalyst for judicial reform. However, this model has many detractors, including the Criminal Trial Lawyers Association and the Chief Justice of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench. My questions are for the Attorney General. Why is the minister pandering to special-interest groups by offering a host of specialized courts within the single trial court model?

The Speaker: The hon. Minister of Justice and Attorney General.

Mr. Hancock: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Well, I wouldn’t agree with that preamble with respect to what is actually being proposed. What we are talking about in the context of a single trial court is creating a horizontally organized court rather than a vertically organized court. Instead of the Provincial Court and proceeding up to Court of Queen’s Bench, we would have a court with section 96 powers and organized, as I say, horizontally, so you would have a criminal division, a commercial division, a family division, and you would be able to deal within those divisions with the specialized needs of groups. We have, for example, the domestic violence court in Calgary. Now, if that is pandering to a specialized interest group, that kind of description boggles the mind. What we’re actually doing there is dealing with an issue in our society which is extremely important: reducing the recidivism rate, getting treatment for people so that they don’t continue to abuse their spouses. That’s the type of thing you can do when you focus the resources in an appropriate way.

Going to a single trial court model, which we’re looking at – we haven’t made the decision to do it but are looking at it – will allow us to re-enter our resources so we can have specific types of courts to deal with domestic violence, for example, with offences involving weapons, drugs, perhaps even issues relative to youth using drugs or skipping school, as they do in some places in the States, dealing with youth issues. So what we’re looking at is a single trial court which would give one area of jurisdiction and that would allow the court, then, to specialize in particular areas to achieve better results for Albertans.

The Speaker: The hon. member.

Mr. Rathgeber: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I apologize for boggling the minister’s mind. Given that section 92(14) of the Constitution gives the provinces exclusive jurisdiction over the organization of the provincial courts, why is the minister abrogating this right to the federal government?

Mr. Hancock: Again, we’re not abrogating any rights to the federal government. In fact, I would suggest that we’re doing exactly the opposite. What happens right now is that the federal government under that section of the Constitution has the right to appoint section 96 judges, as they’re called. These are the judges in Alberta of the Court of Queen’s Bench and the Court of Appeal. But the Court of Queen’s Bench judges, which deal with a lot of the constitutional issues that we deal with, as I say, right now are appointed by the federal government. We appoint Provincial Court judges as a statutory court rather than a constitutional court. What we are proposing is that there be one court. So, yes, we would no longer appoint judges to the Provincial Court, but we would as part of the proposal have to engage in a protocol with the federal government so that we would have even greater involvement in the appointment of all of the judges. The net effect would be that we would have an impact on the appointment of judges to the section 96 courts even though they would have the right to make the appointment. That is an improvement of our process and an improvement in our ability, in my view, to have an effect on who is appointed to the bench.

The Speaker: The hon. member.

Mr. Rathgeber: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Given the obvious noncollaboration between Alberta and Ottawa over Senate appointments, why is the Minister of Justice hopeful that he can collaborate with Ottawa with respect to judicial appointments?

Mr. Hancock: Well, Mr. Speaker, nobody said that it was going to be easy, but we have to always, I think, strive to do the right thing with taxpayers’ resources and the right thing with respect to getting the best access to justice for Albertans on the most cost-effective basis. So even though it’s going to require some work to develop a protocol with the federal government, I think that in the area of justice there has actually been considerable co-operation historically. We do have dual areas of jurisdiction where they appoint and pay for the Federal Court judges and they pass the Criminal Code, for example, and we have to do the administration of justice at all levels of court.

So we have had some considerable success in that in the past. There are obviously areas where we haven’t had success. It’s notgoing to be easy, but it is part and parcel of trying to make the court system better so that we have a 21st century dispute resolution process for Albertans.

Now try to imagine a government backbencher rising in the House of Commons this afternoon and having such an exchange with the justice minister.