Globe and Mail

Opinion mixed on power of judges

Regional differences reflect recent controversial rulings, analyst says

KIRK MAKIN
Justice Reporter
The Globe and Mail
Tuesday, November 23, 1999

Residents in Alberta and the Atlantic region are more critical of the increased power of judges than are the rest of Canadians, a poll says.

The survey found that while 57 per cent of Albertans and 56 per cent of Atlantic Canadians are unhappy with the power of the judiciary, just 39 per cent of Ontarians and 41 per cent of those in Manitoba and Saskatchewan have similar objections.

Over all, 50 per cent felt judges do not have too much power, while 45 per cent said they did, in The Globe and Mail/CTV poll conducted by the Angus Reid Group.

"Disagreement is fairly temperate, as 33 per cent say they 'somewhat disagree,' compared to 18 per cent who 'strongly disagree,' " said an analysis prepared by Angus Reid Group.

The poll found that older Canadians, those with household incomes of more than $60,000 and those with university educations are more likely to be concerned about the power of judges than are others. Men and women were almost evenly split on the issue.

John Wright, senior vice-president of Angus Reid Group, said the regional differences detected in the poll may reflect particularly contentious Supreme Court of Canada rulings that have been made over the past couple of years.

A major conflict between aboriginal and non-aboriginal fishermen in the Atlantic region broke out in mid-September after a ruling in favour of a Mi'kmaq native charged with illegally fishing eels out of season.

In Alberta, a decision last year prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. It came in for particularly ferocious criticism and added fuel to calls for the election of judges and for more limits on the issues they can decide.

"The judges have been forced to deal with issues that politicians didn't want to deal with," Mr. Wright said in an interview. "This is not necessarily a backlash against the judiciary as much as it is a sign of their conundrum. We have to look at the failure of politicians to deal with these difficult decisions."

The power of the judiciary escalated in 1982, with the passage of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Charter permits citizens to challenge any law or statute, using such guarantees as freedom of speech and the right to a fair trial within a reasonable time.

Once a piece of legislation is found to be in violation of the Charter, government lawyers can defend it on the grounds that it was a justifiable measure to take in a free and democratic society.

This formula of weighing legislative objectives against the rights of the individual put judges overnight in the position of acting as referee over the work of politicians.

The Angus Reid survey involved telephone interviews with 1,500 adults between Nov. 4 and Nov. 14. It is considered to have a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

JUDGES IN CANADA

QUESTION: Please tell me if you agree or disagree. Judges in Canada have too much power?
REGION

                                    Sask./


                      B.C    Alta    Man     Ont    Que    Atlantic


Strongly agree        23%     25%    19%     19%    21%      31%


Somewhat agree        24      32     22      20     27       26


Somewhat disagree     32      28     42      35     30       29


Strongly disagree     15      13     10      21     19       15


Don't know             6       2      7       5      4        1

-***
AGE

                     18 to 34    35 to 54    55+


Strongly agree         15%         20%       30%


Somewhat agree         23          25        23


Somewhat disagree      40          33        23

Strongly disagree      16          19        18


Don't know              5           3         5

-***
INCOME

                      $30,000    $30-$59,000    $60,000+


Strongly agree          24%         20%           20%


Somewhat agree          25          27            20


Somewhat disagree       30          33            36


Strongly disagree       19          15            20


Don't know               4           5             4

-***
GENDER

                       Male     Female


Strongly agree          26%      17%


Somewhat agree          20       27


Somewhat disagree       31       34


Strongly disagree       20       16


Don't know               3        5

Source: Angus Reid Group Inc. (November, 1999)

Copyright © 1999 Globe Information Services