Seamless access to justice in French: an Ottawa pilot with province wide implications

While Ontario law mandates that court services be available in French in designated areas of the province, the reality can sometimes be quite different.

For example, delays can result if a French-speaker has to wait until a French-speaking judge is available to be able to pursue a case in French. Counsel can also face challenges when presenting court documents in French because clerks are unaccustomed to receiving them, or few members of staff understand them.

It’s due to these difficulties that francophone clients will often choose to proceed in English rather than face these barriers and risk a delay in proceedings.

To address these challenges, and in close cooperation with Legal Aid Ontario, the Ministry of the Attorney General announced its findings October 11 of an 18-month pilot called the Seamless Access to Justice in French in Ottawa’s courthouse, which ended in November 2016.

Changes, some now permanent, have “enhanced access to justice in French at the… courthouse,” according to the ministry. These include:

  • clearly displaying information about French language rights specific to family, criminal, civil, and small claims court matters;
  • informing French-speaking individuals of their French language rights at the earliest opportunity;
  • actively offering services in French;
  • and establishing protocols between local government officials and Ottawa judiciary to facilitate access to justice in French.

According to the Ministry of the Attorney General, the entire province has already benefitted from the pilot project—for example, providing accused people with language rights information on release forms, and family law clients during mandatory information sessions.

“This project will go a long way in ensuring francophone Ontarians have access to justice in French at the Ottawa courthouse,” says George MacPherson, director general of LAO’s Ottawa district office. “Coinciding with Access to Justice Week this year, it is hoped that the initiatives introduced here, and the lessons learned, will advance access to justice in the French language throughout the province.”