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Group hopes French courses for lawyers, judges can boost access to justice in Saskatchewan

Wednesday, February 05, 2020 @ 2:17 PM | By Terry Davidson

In a bid to improve access to justice for Saskatchewan’s French speakers, a small group of legal professionals in that province continues to offer lawyers a credit course in that language.

The French-Speaking Jurists Association of Saskatchewan (AJEFS) is now heading into its fifth year of providing lawyers with a French course, along with a chance for participants to practise their language skills with others already proficient.

The program’s use of “terminology training” has participants laser in on their use of French in legal contexts, said AJEFS president Rosalie Umuhoza.

“The association has between 30 to 40 lawyers and judges, and each year we offer one to two training [sessions] to lawyers, depending on the subject … they want to [study],” said Umuhoza.

The problem, she said, is that while participants already speak some degree of French, their skills atrophy over time due to most legal proceedings being held only in English.

“We have two different categories. The first [involves] those lawyers who do speak French, but because they work every day in English, they need to improve their vocabulary. The other type of category is those lawyers who did [French] immersion in school and want to improve their French, [but] don’t have any place to practise it.”

A lack of bilingual resources means increased time and more expense for French residents who want their legal matters heard in their primary language.

“That happens all the time,” said Umuhoza. “Here in Saskatchewan, we only have seven judges who are bilingual, and it takes more time for francophones to get their cases heard. But when we get a chance to have both lawyers and judges who are bilingual, the cases are done faster and errors of comprehension and interpretation are minimized. The reason AJEFS offers … terminology training is because AJEFS believes it is important to go beyond a passive offer and evolve toward an active offer of high-quality French-language legal and judicial services.”

Umuhoza said there is a legal and regulatory obligation in Saskatchewan to provide such services in French if requested.

“It is the law to have equitable access to justice and legal services in French. The other thing is that French is one of the official languages in Canada. And also, in Saskatchewan, the code of professional conduct of the law society [obligates] all lawyers to inform their clients [of] their language rights. … We do have a francophone population that is increasing right now, so the more we have people requesting [French] services, the more we need lawyers who speak French.”

Upon completing the program, participants will earn a Continuing Professional Development credit with the province’s law society, she said.

There is no fee to take the course, but participants must join the AJEFS. Membership, said Umuhoza, costs between $50 and $100 per year, depending on level of professional experience. 

There has also been a push to address this by a number of law schools.

In June 2019, the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Law certified its first cohort in common law French through a joint program where students spend a portion of their schooling at the University of Ottawa.

Gerald Heckman, University of Manitoba

The University of Calgary’s law school has reportedly done the same.

Around that time, the University of Manitoba’s Robson Hall was in the midst of developing a French certificate program.

At the time, professor Gerald Heckman, one of the minds behind the U of M program, said he had “heard that only two or … three criminal defence lawyers in Winnipeg regularly represent francophone clients in French in criminal cases.”

“[The new common law certificate] is there to address, primarily, an access to justice challenge that has been identified,” Heckman had said. “It is very difficult, in many cases, for members of French speaking communities outside Quebec to obtain legal services in their own language.”

In 2012, the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General’s French Language Services Bench and Bar Advisory Committee released a report detailing a shortage of bilingual resources in the province’s legal sector. In a 2015 follow-up paper, it was stated that while there had been “significant energy and resources committed to French language services” since the first report, more was needed to be done.

“It is hoped that those individuals and organizations that have been so actively involved in the work of this French Language Services Bench and Bar Response Steering Committee will continue to consider additional ways to improve French language services in Ontario, request ongoing language rights education and awareness, and engage with each other — while being proud promoters of French language services,” it stated.

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