It almost seemed like overkill: on Thursday, an association representing the province’s Crown attorneys wanted to write a letter to the editor responding to the provincial government’s decision to cut the number of provincial Crowns and the effects of cutting support staff as well.
The letter from the Newfoundland and Labrador Crown Attorneys’ Association was thoughtful, careful and recognized the need to cut costs: “The NLCAA appreciates that the government has a duty to be fiscally responsible.” It was a polite letter, spelling out the risks of cutbacks in an already-busy court system.
The association said it had wanted to address the issues in private meetings with the government, but that the issue had exploded publicly and the NLCAA executive felt they had to respond in a public forum as well.
Then came the curious part: the letter came from the NLCAA executive and the group asked that it not be signed by an individual but by the group as a whole.
Why? This is the serious part: the lawyers were concerned that there would be retribution by the government against anyone whose name was directly attached to the document.
Crown attorneys, generally, are educated people who understand the role of free speech in a democracy. It seemed strange that, as a group, they would fear that exercising free speech could lead to direct personal retribution by the government.
To put it another way, if there was any group that shouldn’t feel the chill about writing about their view of a very public situation in the province’s courts, this would be it. The letter was not a polemic, it was not offensive and it added to the public debate of a very public issue, with detailed information from individuals keenly and directly involved in the day-to-day operations that are being affected by cutbacks.
But they were afraid.
Turns out, they were also right.
Because late in the day on Thursday, that fear became very real. That’s when a legal aid lawyer who spoke to the CBC about the effects cutbacks would have on the justice system was suspended by the Newfoundland and Labrador Legal Aid Commission. It’s not clear how long Ray Kuszelewski — the area director for legal aid in Gander — will be off the job. It’s also not clear why someone whose job it is to defend the rights of those who face the legal system empty-handed should now have to write a letter of apology for speaking up about his concerns for precisely those people.
What is clear is the message being sent. The government is very publicly denouncing any concerns about cuts in the Justice Department — on Thursday, two cabinet ministers issued a joint government news release headlined “Ministers clarify misinformation on budget impacts for justice,” a release that patently failed to identify even a single piece of “misinformation.” And it seems ready to denounce and discipline staff members who speak out as well.
The NLCAA pointed out that the cutbacks in the Justice Department take staffing back to a level that a public inquiry deemed to be insufficient. Will Justice Minister Darin King now be suspending all of the Crown attorneys for putting such heresy in the newspaper? Stay tuned.