Social notes: When Bench & Bar meet
Two men are seated together for a light meal at Modavie in Old Montréal: Lawyer Stéphane Verreau Verge has come from Québec and chosen the salmon tartar, while François Rolland, former Chief Justice of the Superior Court, enjoys bass with a side of vegetables—no carbs. There will be no wine at this lunch as the men discuss the relationship between judges and lawyers in a social context.
The retired judge: The Honourable François Rolland. Appointed judge of the Superior Court of Québec in 1996, then Chief Justice in 2004. As of 2015, manages the voluntary reimbursement program implemented by the province following revelations of fraud in public contracts during the Charbonneau Commission.
The lawyer: Stéphane Verreau Verge, Lévis. Civil litigator, cofounded Verreau Dufresne Avocats in 2013. In 2015, created a website to help citizens file cases with the Small Claims Division. Advocates for modernization of the justice system.
“Whenever I run into a judge outside the court, I’m not sure how to react,” says Verreau Verge. “How do I approach them? Even though lawyers are aware of your duty of reserve, I’m not sure they really understand how to apply it in everyday life.”
“It’s normal to feel awkward,” Rolland is quick to respond. “When a lawyer is starting out, they’re terrified of judges. But with age—and credibility—they get more comfortable.”
Professional conduct rules require judges to protect themselves against external influence. They must be careful not to comment on societal issues, politics and public affairs.
“I always tell my students: once a lawyer is appointed a judge, they become boring at parties!” says Rolland with a laugh.
This duty, he asserts, is even stronger in Canada than in the US. Here, judges must maintain not only their impartiality, but also the appearance of impartiality. It’s why judges, once appointed, make a list of the people close to them (friends, family, firms they have worked at) whose cases they cannot hear, to guarantee their independence.
Things were different in the past, he says. Twenty years ago, social interactions between judges and lawyers were less frequent. Even at conferences, lawyers barely spoke to judges.
In Rolland’s opinion, the risk of influence is greater with parties involved in a dispute than with lawyers. “If the judgment hasn’t been delivered yet, meeting with concerned parties is very problematic. If the judgment has been delivered, it’s still uncomfortable,” he says.
When it comes to social events, discretion is in order. In theory, a judge is allowed to attend a party as part of a Bar conference if all the conference attendees are invited, says Rolland. But if the event is sponsored by a company, for example, and the judge has heard a case involving the company that is under consideration, in his opinion, the judge shouldn't go. Again, he says, the appearance of a conflict of interest must be taken into account. “When in doubt, sit it out.”
That being said, judges are still human. A judge and a lawyer can be close without posing a problem, as long as no lines are crossed. In regional jurisdictions, judges and lawyers often find themselves at the same restaurant for lunch. The solution? “Either all the lawyers eat at the judge’s table, or the judge eats alone!” replies Rolland. “A judge may also be close to a lawyer who used to be their articling student,” he adds. “But the student will have to avoid putting them in an embarrassing situation.”
Verreau Verge suggests that lawyers also have a responsibility: they must not try to break through the judge’s reserve.
One thing is clear: judges and lawyers are increasingly meeting out of court. Verreau Verge is part of the generation of young lawyers who want to have these meetings, albeit in a controlled environment, solely to discuss professional issues.
“I think judges and lawyers should come together and discuss how to modernize the legal system and make it more effective.” Rolland fully agrees: “You’re right. And we can get to know each other without forfeiting impartiality.”