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Ford government appointing more police officers as justices of the peace

JPs decide on bail and search warrant applications based largely on evidence obtained by police
Ontario Premier Doug Ford greets officers at the Toronto Police College following a press conference in Etobicoke, Ont., on Tuesday, April 25, 2023.

Ontario has seen a dramatic increase in the number of police officers appointed as justices of the peace since Attorney General Doug Downey tightened his control on the appointment process.

A Trillium analysis finds that nearly three out of every 10 justices of the peace (JPs) appointed by the Ontario government in the past three years were former police officers or career military members.

Since June 2021, the province has appointed 114 JPs. Of that total, 26 were previously police officers, and five had served in the Canadian Armed Forces.

Twenty-four JP appointments during this three-year period went to individuals who had worked as lawyers.

Justices of the peace preside over nearly all bail hearings and search warrant applications, largely based on evidence obtained by police officers.

JPs receive extensive training, so they are not required to have a legal education or experience in the justice system.

“As a result, justices of the peace have varied educational, business and community backgrounds,” the Ontario court of justice states on its website.

The status quo has changed since Downey, named attorney general in June of 2019, changed the appointment process.

The last round of appointments by the previous Liberal government took place in April 2018. Of the 17 new JPs, one was a police officer. Seven were lawyers and nine worked in other professions.

The first opportunity Downey had to appoint justices of the peace was in February 2020. None of the successful candidates were police officers, although a civilian police employee in Hamilton was named a JP.

Just days after the February 2020 appointments, Downey announced changes to the selection process for judges and JPs. In the case of JPs, the appointments advisory committee was reduced in size and it could classify candidates only as “not recommended”, “recommended” and “highly recommended” in its lists to the attorney general, increasing the number of candidates Downey can choose from.

At the same time, the government has appointed people with ties to the provincial and federal Conservative parties to the committee that recommends JPs.

Premier Doug Ford has defended himself against charges of patronage by saying he’s trying to get “tough” judges and JPs on the bench.

Adam Weisberg, a vice president of Ontario’s Criminal Lawyers’ Association, said the organization is concerned about the “politicization” of the appointment process. 

“If you just want ‘law and order’ types, you may miss out on some really good candidates,” said Weisberg.

He also said the premier has a “myopic view” when it comes to bail. 

“I get that Doug Ford has been banging the drum for more people to be detained. But any new Justice of the Peace will have to follow the law on bail. If they misapply it, they will be overturned on a bail review in Ontario Superior Court. 

“That will lead to more delays and more court backlogs and more cost to taxpayers,” said Weisberg.

Some legal organizations have previously called for JPs to have legal training. A Liberal government backbencher introduced a private member's bill in 2012 to require JPs presiding over bail hearings to have a law degree, but the legislature did not pass it.

Michael Ras, the chair of the Justices of the Peace Appointments Advisory Committee, defended the selection process for JPs in speaking to The Trillium.

“The push for more lawyers is only coming from lawyers. The position has always been a lay bench,” Ras said.

 “Every candidate has been vetted by the full committee, which includes judicial officers. We stand by every one of our recommendations. They are unimpeachable,” he added.

When asked about the percentage of former police officers and military members appointed as Justices of the Peace, he referred that question to the attorney general.

The press secretary for Attorney General Doug Downey did not respond to requests for comment or written questions submitted by The Trillium about the justices of the peace selection process.

Justices of the peace are currently paid $172,000 annually with 22 days of annual vacation and what the province describes as a “comprehensive pension and insured benefits package.”

They can serve until the age of 65.

Many of the officers named as JPs had enough experience to be eligible for a full police pension, according to the biographies provided by the Ministry of the Attorney General.

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