Growing support for separating roles of justice minister and attorney general

Justice minister is a political executive below the PM, while the AG is an independent legal officer

Federal Justice Minister David Lametti is publicly musing about whether Canada should consider separating the offices of its attorney general and its minister of justice in the wake of the SNC-Lavalin controversy, an idea that has backing from others who know the job intimately.

The woman at the centre of the political storm has herself called for this separation to be studied. As part of her explosive testimony to the House of Commons justice committee earlier this week, Jody Wilson-Raybould said she believes there is merit in the committee studying splitting the roles of attorney general and justice minister.

The justice minister is a political executive who answers to the prime minister, in charge of a federal department with major lawmaking responsibilities. The attorney general is an independent legal officer with final authority on how to handle prosecutions through the Public Prosecution Service of Canada and a duty to keep partisan concerns out of those decisions.

That Wilson-Raybould held both jobs, as is customary in Canada, is at the heart of the controversy over whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and others pushed her too hard to help SNC-Lavalin avoid a criminal prosecution over allegedly corrupt business dealings.

In her testimony Wednesday, Wilson-Raybould pointed to the United Kingdom, where the roles are separate. Both offices are held by politicians but the attorney general doesn’t sit in cabinet. The “Shawcross Doctrine,” the principle that limits how much an attorney general can be asked to consider politics, is named for a British attorney general of the 1950s.

“The two hats that the minister of justice and the attorney general wears here in our country are completely different, and I think there would be merit to talking about having those as two separate individuals,” Wilson-Raybould said.

READ MORE: Wilson-Raybould’s place in Liberal party at risk after SNC-Lavalin testimony

Wilson-Raybould detailed a number of meetings in which she and her staff were urged to exercise a legal option to instruct the director of public prosecutions, Kathleen Roussel, to negotiate a remediation agreement with SNC-Lavalin — a sort of plea bargain.

Privy Council clerk Michael Wernick told the committee last month those discussions were perfectly legal and didn’t cross the line into improper pressure on the attorney general, whom he noted was repeatedly assured by Trudeau that a final decision on the matter was hers. Wilson-Raybould disagreed, saying she found the pressure inappropriate, if legal.

Speaking to the Empire Club in Toronto after Wilson-Raybould testified, Lametti said the director of public prosecutions already operates independently of the justice minister and attorney general, which he said creates an appropriate separation between legal cases and the government.

But the current controversy may warrant a look at widening the scope of this separation, the former McGill University law professor said, stopping short of saying he was in favour of it.

“There are challenges and you have to try to distinguish your hats and knowing when you’re wearing your minister-of-justice hat or knowing when you have to put on your attorney-general hat,” he said. “There are good arguments to split it.”

But, he added, “there’s also 150 years of history of the joint position working in Canada. The kinds of issues we’ve seen this week don’t happen all the time and maybe that is indicative that the system can work.”

Former Conservative justice minister Rob Nicholson, on the other hand, says he once advocated against the idea of separating the roles but he’s changed his mind.

“I was of the opinion, when I was there for six-and-a-half years, that it was a good fit. That there was a complete separation between the two,” he told reporters in Ottawa. “But maybe we should have a look it at when you see this kind of abuse taking place.”

In Israel, the attorney general is an appointed public servant, not a politician — yet another model. This week, Avichai Mandelblit said he plans to indict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on corruption charges, suggesting how little influence the prime minister there has over him.

Former Ontario justice minister and attorney general Michael Bryant believes splitting the jobs could address concerns of political interference. However, making the role of attorney general completely separate from government could also mean ideological differences that happen after a change in government wouldn’t be reflected in the legal and prosecutorial arm of government.

However, Bryant, now the head of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, believes the idea has merit, especially after the SNC-Lavalin controversy.

“It would bolster the lost public confidence in the independence of the system,” he said.

Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

On a journey with Forest Grove artist Neil Pinkett

Art by Neil Pinkett will be on display at Parkside Art Gallery from May 17 - June 15

South Green Lake VFD busy with live fire training, runaway grass fire and garage sale

SGLVFD busy with live fire training, runaway grass fire and May 19… Continue reading

Convicted animal abuser to return to B.C. court May 21

Catherine Jessica Adams is facing a breach of probation charge

The Magic of Q takes guests on an artistic journey

This little known gallery is just off of Highway 97 near Lac La Hache

New cadet leader commands the parade in 100 Mile House

Warrant Officer Mathew Wiebe takes the baton

Kelowna RCMP interrogation video brings home reality in ‘visceral way’: former TRC chairman

Video of Mountie interrogating young Indigenous woman disclosing sexual abuse under fire

B.C. residential school survivor’s indomitable human spirit centre of school play

Terrace theatre company plans to revive Nisga’a leader Larry Guno’s Bunk #7 next year

Canadian killed in Honduras plane crash

The crash happened in the Roatan Islands area, according to officials

B.C. ferry stops to let black bear swim past near Nanaimo

Queen of Oak Bay brakes for wildlife in Nanaimo’s Departure Bay

Mother dead, child in critical condition after carbon monoxide poisoning at Shuswap campground

The woman was found unresponsive insider her tent and the youth was taken via air ambulance to hospital

Canada’s parole officers say correctional system has reached breaking point

About half of Canada’s federal parole officers work inside penitentiaries and correctional institutions

Montreal researchers create audible hockey puck for visually impaired players

Three years ago, Gilles Ouellet came up with the idea for a puck that makes a continuous sound

Former B.C. Greyhound bus drivers head to Penticton for goodbye party

Big bash runs until Sunday, funded by drink cans left behind on busses over the years

Boy, 12, arrested after allegedly pulling a knife on another child at a Surrey park

The child was later released into his parents’ custody as Surrey RCMP continue their investigation

Most Read