Don Macpherson: When lawyers flout the rule of law

One of the lawyers opposing the lawsuit is Maxime Laporte, president of the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montréal. Graham Hughes / THE CANADIAN PRESS

Of all members of society, lawyers have a particular duty to uphold the rule of law. Yet recently, in a controversy involving language, hundreds of Quebec lawyers took the position that the law of the land, in the form of the Canadian Constitution, should be ignored.

The controversy arose from a lawsuit filed in April by the provincial and Montreal bar associations. The aim of the lawsuit is to eliminate confusion arising from differences between the French and English versions of Quebec legal texts, which have equal weight.

The two professional associations have asked Quebec Superior Court to invalidate the province’s existing laws and regulations unless the National Assembly complies with a constitutional requirement that the two versions be identical.

This provoked an uproar among the associations’ members and in the media. A request signed by 118 of the Quebec bar’s nearly 27,000 lawyers forced the association to hold a special meeting on resolutions opposing the lawsuit. The meeting, held last week in Montreal, was attended by about 740 members.

Before the meeting, the dissenters had complained that the midweek meeting would be unrepresentative, since it would be difficult for members from across the province to attend. They abruptly dropped that complaint, however, when the meeting went in their favour.

The resolution to withdraw the lawsuit is not binding on the association, and it passed by only 37 votes, for a narrow majority of 52.5 per cent of voting members, or one per cent of the whole membership.

Still, that amounts to nearly 400 Quebec lawyers voting in favour of ignoring the Constitution, the fundamental law of the land.

Even in Quebec, this is a radical position. The province’s political class almost unanimously disputes the political legitimacy of the Constitution Act of 1982, which limited the province’s powers without its consent.

But the legal authority of even that part of the Constitution has been accepted even by the Parti Québécois government that was in office when it was imposed on the province.

Since the lawyers’ meeting, it has emerged that the Montreal association had joined the lawsuit even after obtaining a legal opinion saying it had little chance of winning.

Also, Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée said that steps were taken last year to translate the French texts properly into English.

Apparently, however, none of this was known to the lawyers when they held their meeting behind closed doors. And the argument the lawyers made in public against the lawsuit was mainly political, not legal.

Mostly, they did not attempt to prove that the constitutional language requirement does not apply to Quebec, or that the lawyers’ associations had misinterpreted it; they simply ignored those questions.

Instead, they and their supporters in the media argued that equal status for English has a “colonial odour” and violates the spirit of Bill 101, which makes French the only official language of Quebec.

One of the lawyers opposing the lawsuit is Maxime Laporte, president of the anti-English Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montréal. In a statement issued by the SSJB after the lawyers’ vote, Laporte threatened to demand the heads of association officials if they did not bow to the expressed will of one per cent of the province’s lawyers.

Another is François Côté, who four years ago distinguished himself by complaining to the Office québécois de la langue française about English-only signs advertising a show by comic Sugar Sammy. The language watchdog agency dismissed the complaint.

In the current controversy, Côté contributed an online petition imaginatively claiming that the lawsuit would force MNAs even to think in English as well as French.

The dissenters have succeeded at least in putting the lawyers’ associations on the defensive. The associations have suspended their lawsuit and offered to negotiate a settlement with the government.

Whatever happens to the lawsuit, however, it has revealed a disturbing lack of commitment on the part of at least some Quebec lawyers to upholding the rule of law.

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