Members of the Quebec legal community claim that a trial that took place in the greatest secrecy, without a written record, violated the fundamental principles of justice on which the judicial system is based.
The lawsuit, the existence of which was first reported on Friday by the French-language online newspaper La Presse, is referred to only as “Dossier X”.
The case was conducted secretly with the approval of the Crown prosecutors involved, the presiding judge and the defense attorney.
The location and date of the trial, as well as the names of the accused and the presiding judge, were deliberately excluded from the public record.
No witnesses were called to the stand: they were questioned outside the courtroom and a transcript of their testimony was presented in court.
The case had no case number and was never filed in the province’s court records. On paper, this never happened.
The trial only broke out because the accused chose to appeal the verdict, reporting the case to the Quebec Court of Appeal, which in turn made its decision public.
“Unthinkable” to flout the established rules
Elfriede-Andrée Duclervil, a legal aid lawyer in Montreal who has worked on several high-profile cases, said it was “unthinkable” for a lawyer to agree to participate in a trial this way.
“Our justice system is built on standards of openness and transparency in court proceedings, and this case was completely against that. Totally against that,” she said.
Jeffrey Boro, a longtime criminal lawyer, said he was also “amazed” that the court’s rules, “established over centuries, can be ignored in minutes”.
“Things like this should never happen,” Boro said.
The backroom deals with the informant
The decision of the Court of Appeal, rendered on Wednesday, is heavily redacted but allows certain facts of the case to be gleaned.
The secrecy was allegedly intended to protect the identity of the accused, who had worked as an informant with an unnamed local police department.
It appears that the police encountered the informant on several occasions, including in hotel rooms and in the back of vans.
However, police claimed they never guaranteed immunity to the informant, who was later charged for a role allegedly played in the unknown crime.
The secret trial then took place and the informant was found guilty. The accused appealed the decision, saying he had been promised immunity.
It was at this point that the case came to the attention of the judges of the Quebec Court of Appeal, who opted to issue their decision publicly, with all identifying details obscured.
“In the opinion of the Court, after reviewing the record, this course of action was exaggerated and contrary to the fundamental principles which govern our system of justice,” reads the decision of the Court of Appeal.
The fundamentals of justice flouted
Asked about the secret trial by reporters on Friday, Quebec Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette said he, too, had just learned of the case and had no comment yet.
Duclervil, the legal aid attorney, said the right to a public hearing isn’t absolute, but she said there are less “extreme” ways to protect someone’s identity, like a publication ban, for example.
“We don’t even see cases like this in national security, terrorism, etc.,” she said.
Duclervil said open proceedings are essential to maintaining public confidence in the system and in the administration of justice.
“I think the public has a right to be concerned about criminal cases being conducted in such an environment. We cannot have such a system,” she said.
“This exception to exception is unacceptable.”