Justices of the peace? They perform marriages, right? That's all they are qualified to do, right?
The narrow, albeit popular, understanding of what justices of the peace do drives them and their advocates to distraction. They call it an urban myth that needs to be busted.
Heck! They aren't even allowed to perform marriages in Saskatchewan. There are marriage commissioners for that.
The reality is, justices of the peace, or JPs, are a growing and increasingly important layer of the judicial system, performing functions that were once the sole domain of judges.
Nowhere is it more evident than in Ontario where, among other things, JPs can decide whether to grant accused persons bail, or throw them in jail, and whether to issue search warrants to police.
"This is not your grandfather's justice of the peace," Ontario Attorney General Michael Bryant said. "They are not performing weddings, or at least not very often."
It was JPs, for example, who presided over the bail hearings in Toronto of several of the 17 people accused last spring of plotting a terrorist attack with explosives made from fertilizer.
It was a JP who authorized the controversial search warrants on the home and office of Citizen reporter Juliet O'Neill in January 2004 after she wrote a story about Maher Arar, based in part on leaked government documents.
In what critics describe as a belated effort to get with the times, the Ontario legislature is on the verge of giving final approval to new legislation aimed at extinguishing a lingering perception that getting a job as a JP -- with a minimum salary of $88,000 -- depends more on who you know more than what you know.
Salary disclosure documents for 2005 show most JPs earned between $100,000 and $136,000, about half as much as judges in the Ontario Court of Justice.
The legislation -- which is in the midst of final reading in the legislature -- would also tackle backlogs by allowing retired JPs to work on a per-diem basis.
Under the new rules, the attorney general would still appoint JPs, but would rely on the advice of an independent selection committee.
Also, for the first time, JPs would have to have a university degree, or a comparable community college diploma and at least 10 years of paid or volunteer experience.
Louise Botham, president of the Criminal Lawyers Association of Ontario, applauded the reforms. She said there are good JPs, but the lack of transparency fuelled the perception the bench was a haven for patronage.
She also said the expanded role of JPs over the last 15 years has raised the bar in terms of the skills required to do the job.
"It's something whose time has come," Ms. Botham said.
"I'm not here to shill for the government bill. But I think this is an attempt to make sure we have quality people doing this job."
The list of responsibilities for the 295 JPs in Ontario is long and much broader than performing wedding nuptials, and deciding on bail and search warrants.
They preside over trials involving provincial offences, which include matters dealing with trespassing, liquor violations, traffic offences, workplace safety, environmental protection, dog owner's liability and parking and noise bylaws. They also decide if someone should be prohibited from possessing firearms, and issue warrants to apprehend children in need of protection.
The new Ontario rules do not go as far as those implemented in Alberta and Nova Scotia. In those provinces, JPs must be lawyers.
© The Ottawa Citizen 2006