Temporary judges can't be lawyers
Appeal court ruling clarifies role of pinch-hitting justices

by Ian Elliot
Northern News Services

NNSL (Nov 17/97) - Lawyers are no longer allowed to sit as temporary judges in the NWT.

In an recent decision governing the appointment of justices who fill in at times of increased demand or whenever full-time judges are away, the territorial Court of Appeal has ruled that only retired judges under the age of 65 or qualified judges from the South make the grade.

The ruling strikes a blow for the independence and impartiality of temporary judges because up to that point, the government could appoint lawyers to the posts.

Judges are bound by a stricter code of conduct than lawyers, including the provision that they have no outside business interests, while the sole prohibition on temporary judges is that they cannot rule on cases involving partners or business associates.

The ruling dispels any problems with temporary judges being in perceived conflicts of interest as they rule on Northern cases, says the NWT's deputy justice minister.

"There could be an apprehension on the part of some members of the public if a judge had outside business interests or came from a law firm where he would be in a position to make decisions that could benefit his law firm or win the favour of the government," Don Cooper explained last week.

None of the temporary justices currently working in the North are practising lawyers, he said, but the ruling does set down guidelines for the government in future.

Deputy justices are a uniquely Northern need, he noted.

"Most jurisdictions do not have the same problems we have, in fact, I'd say no other jurisdiction has the problems we have," he said of the justice system in the south.

"Their courts are larger, for starters, and if they're down one or two judges, other courts can come up with the shortfall, or they can call on a retired judge. In the North, we just don't have the number of judges to make up a shortfall."

Several of the judges brought from the South to sit in the territories spend their vacation time working in the North, either for the money or out of personal interest, he said.

"It's something different for some of the judges who sit in a big-city courtroom all year to come up here and go on the circuit in the NWT," Cooper said.