Disappointed prosecutors return to work
Published Tuesday, February 22, 2011 11:13PM EST
MONTREAL - The province's 1450 government lawyers and Crown prosecutors were back on the job Tuesday after the National Assembly passed an emergency bill imposing a contract on the striking workers.
Given the Liberal majority the final outcome was never in doubt, and in the end 61 members voted in favour, with 50 voting against.
The imposed contract brings an immediate end to the two week old strike, and lawyers had to return to work at 1 p.m. Tuesday or face hefty penalties.
The bill provides for fines of between $100 and $500 a day for individuals who flout the legislation, while unions could be hit with fines of up to $125,000 a day.
Lawyers were asking for a 20 to 40 percent pay increase, enough to bring them up to the national average for Crown prosecutors.
Instead, they will received a six percent raise over the next five years, which is lower than what the government was offering during the negotiation process.
The back-to-work legislation triggered an unexpected response from the Crown's senior ranks.
47 of the province's top-level prosecutors and their assistants -- almost every senior lawyer -- sent resignation letters to relinquish their management positions in a display of solidarity with striking employees
In a statement late Monday the government said it would not accept those letters.
Prosecutors say one of their more important demands was an increase in the number of people handling criminal cases.
The government says it will hire an additional 80 Crown prosecutors, 25 government lawyers, and 40 researchers.
Lawyers say that is nowhere near enough, pointing out that Ontario has 800 attorneys and 500 researchers.
"I can't keep going with witnesses that I have never met before they come testify in court. When they've been stabbed and received bullets in their body and I don't have time to meet them beforehand, I don't have the time to prepare the files as (well) as I should," said veteran prosecutor Jean-Claude Boyer.
Dire effect on morale
The union representing prosecutors predicted that the emergency legislation would have a dire impact on morale.
"The prosecutors will go back to work and will continue to give maximum effort with what little resources they have," Christian Leblanc, president of the prosecutors' association, told a Quebec City news conference.
"But now that they're imposing back-to-work legislation against the Crowns for the second time in five years, will the Crowns continue to prop up a legal system that's deficient? One that's propped up by their volunteering their personal time? I don't think so."
Five years ago the government refused binding arbitration and gave lawyers the right to strike instead.
Though they saw they anticipated the back-to-work legislation coming, it is still infuriating, said prosecutors.
"We have always denounced the fact we were forced to take a strike, it doesn't make any sense in a free and democratic country," said Crown prosecutors' spokesperson John-Denis Gerols.
On Monday, the last day of their strike, Crown prosecutors marched outside courthouses in Montreal and Quebec City during the lunch hour and held a silent vigil on the third floor of Montreal's Palais de Justice.
Government defends position
Treasury Board President Michelle Courchesne called the government's offer reasonable and said it wasn't fair to compare salaries between provinces, rejecting the argument that Quebec prosecutors are 40-per-cent underpaid.
"There's a difference in the cost of living between us and Ontario or other Canadian provinces," Courchesne said. "We have social programs here, when we consider ($7-a-day) daycare, when we think of parental leave, we think of lower tuition fees, of prescription drug plans."
Premier Jean Charest insisted that his government made every possible effort to reach a settlement with the strikers.
"We tabled a serious offer, one that was credible and was geared toward improving the working conditions of the prosecutors," Charest said.
That's not how the Crown attorneys saw things.
"The prosecutors are proud of the battle they have waged because they waged it for the right reasons," Leblanc said. "They are also ashamed at being employees of this government. The situation will be very difficult for prosecutors, and many are talking about quitting."
Parti Quebecois Leader Pauline Marois also weighed in, accusing the government of undermining the public's trust in the justice system.
"At a time when we need our Crown prosecutors more than ever, the government is imposing a special law without ever having negotiated in good faith," Marois said in the legislature.
Lawyers will not co-operate with anti-corruption task force
In retaliation for the legislation, prosecutors say they plan to boycott the province's new anti-corruption unit, announced by the government last Friday.
"Almost everyone has said in writing that they will not apply to those postings if they're brought back to work with legislation," said Prosecutor's Association president Christian Leblanc.
Many of the prosecutors responsible for jailing Quebec's most dangerous organized crime figures have threatened to quit, and some have already stepped down.
Claude Chartrand tendered his resignation as Chief Prosecutor for the Organized Crime Bureau (BLACO) this past weekend.
"This is a remarkable and I would say historic resignation," said Gerols. "Maitre Chartrand is greatly respected and he's running a very important organization against organized crime."
Chartrand had been in charge of BLACO since 2005, and in his resignation letter reportedly said he does not believe that provincial prosecutors have the manpower or backup staff necessary to combat organized crime.
He will remain a prosecutor until he finalizes arrangements for his retirement.
Prosecutors paid more in other provinces
Negotiations collapsed Friday, though Courchesne said over the weekend she was still willing to negotiate, and that she had made offers to the prosecutors to improve their working conditions.
Prosecutors accused her of lying her way through the negotiations.
"We prosecutors have a flair for bull****," said Gerols, "and we had our share of it this week."
With files from Canadian Press