Legal experts say Quebec ‘secret trial’ violates fundamental principles of justice
The case, known as ‘Dossier X,’ has bewildered Quebec’s legal community. It only came to light after the defendant, a police informant, appealed the guilty verdict to the Quebec Court of Appeal.
Members of Quebec’s legal community say a trial that took place in complete secrecy, with no paper trail, has violated the fundamental principles of justice on which the court system is based.
The trial, whose existence was first reported by the French-language online newspaper La Presse on Friday, is referred to only as “Dossier X.”
The case was conducted covertly with the approval of the Crown prosecutors involved, the presiding judge and defence counsel.
Where and when the trial took place, along with the names of the defendant and the presiding judge, have been deliberately excluded from the public record.
No witnesses were called to the stand: they were interviewed 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 judicial archives. On paper, it never happened.
The trial only came to light because the defendant chose to appeal the verdict, flagging the case to Quebec’s Court of Appeal, which in turn rendered its decision public.
‘Unthinkable’ to flout established rules
Elfriede-Andrée Duclervil, a legal aid lawyer in Montreal who has worked on several high-profile cases, said it was “unthinkable” that any lawyer would agree to participate in a trial this way.
“Our justice system is based on standards of openness and transparency in court proceedings, and that case went completely against that. Totally against that,” she said.
Longtime criminal lawyer Jeffrey Boro said he, too, was “astonished” that the rules of court, “established over centuries, can be disregarded in minutes.”
“Things like this should never, ever happen,” Boro said.
Backroom deals with informant
The Appeal Court decision, released on Wednesday, is heavily redacted but makes it possible to glean some of the facts of the case.
The secrecy was allegedly to protect the identity of the defendant, who had worked as an informant with an unnamed local police service.
It appears police met with the informant several times, including in hotel rooms and in the back of vans.
However, the police claimed they never guaranteed immunity for the informant, who was later charged for a role allegedly played in the unknown crime.
The secret trial was then conducted, and the informant was found guilty. The accused appealed the decision, claiming to have been promised immunity.
It is at that stage that the case came to the attention of the justices on the Quebec Court of Appeal, who chose to issue their decision publicly, with all identifying details blacked out.
“In the opinion of the Court, after examining the file, this way of proceeding was exaggerated and contrary to the fundamental principles that govern our system of justice,” the Court of Appeal decision read.
Fundamentals of justice breached
When 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 lawyer, said the right to an open court is not absolute, but she said there are less “extreme” ways to protect someone’s identity, such as a publication ban, for example.
“We don’t even see cases like this when it comes to national security, terrorism, and so on and so forth,” she said.
Duclervil said open proceedings are key to keeping the public’s trust in the system and in the administration of justice.
“I think that the public has a right to be concerned that criminal cases are being conducted in such an environment. We cannot have such a system,” she said.
“That exception to the exception is unacceptable.”