News | 14.04.2010

Controversial Canadian legislation calling for bilingual judges

Bilingual skills have always been an asset for any job, but if a proposed bill in Canada is passed then it may well be a legal requisite for Supreme Court Judges. Classed as a ‘landmark bill’ by the Telegraph-Journal, it has provoked widespread debate and also received criticism from both legal personnel and members of the public alike.

So, what is the proposed legislation and why has it proved so polemic. The proposed bill (C-232) has been put forward by Yvon Godin, a member of the New Democratic Party (NDP) and following its successful passage through the House of Commons, the next stage is consideration by the Senate. If successful, it will require all Supreme Court judges to be bilingual in both English and French and therefore capable of understanding proceedings ‘without the assistance of an interpreter.’

Even though Yvon Godin has stated that he expects the bill to be passed, it has not proved to be popular with everybody. Concerns have been raised about the onus placed on language skills above professional competency in the legal field, with the possible elimination of suitable candidates. Furthermore, critics have commented on the fact that merely being fluent in two languages is not necessarily a barometer of capacity in such a highly specialised sector. The impact of this ruling upon First Nations languages has also been called into question.

In an unprecedented move, John Major (a former Supreme Court Judge) has spoken out against the proposed ruling. In an interview with CBC Radio, he stated that the primary consideration should be to select ‘the most competent people, regardless of language skills’ and he highlighted the use of interpreters and translators in Parliament – the same process which takes place in the United Nations.

Mr Godin has defended the bill stating that the aim is not for ‘bilingual’ judges, but an equal understanding of French and English. However, Mr Major stated that conversation ability in a language is not equal to fluency and does not denote fluency in a specialised field, such as the language used in courts and in the legal sphere. He highlighted that geographical representation is likely to be affected by such legislation and if bilingual skills become a stipulation, then this would be a ‘step backwards’ for the Canadian legal system.

Phil Fontaine (former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations) also had concerns over the bill and classed it as ‘elitist’. For his part, the bill is not moving in the right direction, as indigenous law is an emerging interest in Canadian law and creating a language stipulation would prevent people who speak First Nations languages from being appointed to the Canada’s Supreme Court.

The proposed bilingual bill has certainly provoked debate and controversy in Canada, but it is the Senate who will have the final say. It remains to be seen which direction the bill will take and its future implications for the Canadian legal system.

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