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Judge says Quebec's language law regarding court translations is 'inoperable'

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A Quebec court judge has declared inoperable a portion of the province's language law that requires English-language court decisions to be immediately translated into French.

Dennis Galiatsatos wrote in a May 17 decision the requirement for courts to simultaneously provide a French translation of a written decision rendered in English will slow down the legal process for anglophone Quebecers accused of a crime.

A modification to the Quebec language charter scheduled to come into effect on June 1 states that a French translation must be provided "immediately and without delay."

Galiatsatos says translations can take weeks or months to produce and approve, a process he adds will delay verdicts and force people who opt to be tried in English to wait longer to learn their fate than those who are tried in French.

"By design and in practice, its net effect is that all anglophone Quebecers who are charged with a criminal offence — and who elect to have their trial in English — will be subjected to a longer waiting period to obtain their verdict than similarly situated francophones would. This is no trivial distinction," he wrote.

The judge said the words "immediately and without delay" are incompatible with the language rights in the Criminal Code and should not apply in criminal procedures.

Galiatsatos said he decided to rule on the matter on his own initiative, prompted by the case of Christine Pryde, who is scheduled to be tried in June on charges of dangerous driving, impaired driving and criminal negligence in the 2021 death of cyclist Irene Dehem.

He said the new amendment to the law risks delaying the judgment in a case that has been ongoing for more than three years.

“This would imply that Ms. Pryde, the Crown, Irene Dehem’s family and the citizens of the judicial district of Montreal will all have to wait several additional weeks or months to receive the final judgment, even though it will be ready long before that, sitting on a shelf while we await a translation by the Court Services, which will then need to be reviewed, corrected and approved," he wrote.

Quebec Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette suggested the government will appeal the decision, and maintained that the article in question is neither discriminatory nor intended to delay proceedings.

"It's important that Quebecers can hear, understand and read the judgments of Quebec courts," he said Tuesday. "The language of justice in Quebec is French." He noted that neither party in the Pryde case had asked the judge to rule on the constitutionality of the province's language law, and said the judgment "makes no sense."

In his decision, the judge noted that Quebec’s attorney general has argued that the delays caused by the translation requirement will be relatively brief, that they're justified by the need to promote the French language, and that the Quebec government's use of the Constitution's notwithstanding clause shields the language law from many court challenges.

He rejected those arguments, noting that "even a one-day additional delay while awaiting an unnecessary translation obstructs the operation of the criminal law" and is incompatible with the section of the Criminal Code that mandates an accused be tried in the official language of their choice, which is under federal jurisdiction.

He also said the notwithstanding clause shields the law itself, not the criminal process.

Galiatsatos also rejected the proposal from the Crown prosecutor's office that English verdicts be delivered orally, with written decisions to follow, as "artificial, unworkable and inappropriate." Even if a verdict is delivered orally, he said, the lack of a written judgment will make it hard for the lawyers to file appeals or plan sentencing hearings, and will also reduce the public's access to the legal process.

Canada’s attorney general attempted to block the question from being litigated and then declined to provide written submissions because the statute is provincial, an approach Galiatsatos described as a “head-scratcher."

“Of course the impugned statute is provincial," he wrote. "But the entire point is that it may be encroaching on federal jurisdiction.”

He suggested that judges must disregard "political considerations" when making decisions.

"After all, judges must apply the law without fear or favour and without regard to whether the decision is popular," Galiatsatos said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 21, 2024.  

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