What Happens if you Overhear a Decision-Maker’s Deliberations?

A funny thing happened at the Tribunal Administratif du Québec recently. A hearing was conducted into the suspension of an individual’s driver’s licence by videoconference. One of the administrative judges was present at the hearing; the other joined from a remote location. When the SAAQ — the administrative agency that controls drivers’ licences — sought to introduce a medical note which it had not previously produced to the individual, the lawyers were asked to leave the room while the judges discussed admissibility.

Unfortunately, the conversation between the judges made its way into the official recording of the proceedings. The hearing was adjourned to allow the parties to prepare further submissions and a copy of the proceedings was sent out.

Counsel for the SAAQ was most upset upon learning of the following extract from the admissibility discussion:

« Me Pierre Goulet :
Mais… en tout cas. À mon avis, face à la preuve qu’on a eu aujourd’hui, je donne prépondérance à la preuve du requérant.
Dre Louise Galarneau :
Moi aussi je penche de ce côté-là, certain »

The SAAQ subsequently sought to have the judges recuse themselves: SAAQ c. G.B., 2012 QCTAQ 02915. The argument, based on the recorded conversation, was that a reasonable observer, fully informed of the facts, would have an apprehension of bias. In this case, the SAAQ argued, the judges had formed a clear view of the way they were going to decide the case before the adjournment.

Gosselin J. rejected this argument. He noted first that in determining questions of bias, the context must be borne in mind:

[30]           Rappelons que les juges administratifs Goulet et Galarneau faisaient alors face à la problématique de l’acceptation ou non en preuve d’un document qui n’avait pas été produit antérieurement au dossier du Tribunal par la SAAQ et qui était de la nature d’une note médicale rédigée par un médecin qui n’avait pas examiné la personne qui demande l’annulation de la révocation de son permis de conduire par la SAAQ.

In particular, the comments were made “live”, as the judges reacted to seeing the documentary evidence. Any decision-maker reacts in some way to evidence placed before him or her. What matters is whether they have impermissibly formed a fixed view which they will not change or simply arrived at a preliminary view which they may change later. Here, Gosselin J. held, there was no suggestion that the judges’ views were set in stone:

[36]          À partir des mots soulignés dans les extraits reproduits dans la présente décision, on voit très bien qu’il s’agit dans le présent cas d’opinions exprimées en fonction des informations dont les juges administratifs disposent au moment même où ils prononcent ces paroles. En effet, rien ne laisse croire que dans l’audience à venir, la SAAQ n’aurait pas l’occasion de parfaire sa preuve et que cette opinion « du moment » des juges administratifs ne pourrait pas être modifiée.

Nonetheless, it’s probably better for the administration of justice if judges make sure the tapes and cameras have stopped rolling before they start to deliberate.

Aside: West Wing fans may have been reminded of this scene.

H/T Lucie Allard, SOQUIJ.

This content has been updated on June 11, 2014 at 09:47.