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The fallacy of legal “expertise”

The fallacy of legal “expertise”

Judges are experts on the law, not only as a matter of practice, but as a matter of principle. They know the law because they deal with it on a daily basis; they are also deemed to know the law because the law itself says so.

Usually, the practice and the principle go hand-in-hand. But sometimes, a legal issue arises that is within the scope of a judge’s deemed knowledge, but falls outside his or her actual knowledge.

Sometimes a legal issue arises that is not only complex, but indeed esoteric. Sometimes, a legal issue is laden with such particularity and uniqueness that answering it requires the work of a legal historian.

In such cases, can a legal expert assist the Court? This was the question with which the Honourable Gilles Blanchet J.C.S. was recently seized, in Québec (Attorney General) v. IMTT-Québec Inc., 2016 QCCS 849.

The background of this case is a jurisdictional battle concerning whether the provincial government or the federal government regulates the port of Québec on environmental issues. One crucial source for the Court was an 1858 Act of Parliament, the interpretation of which was the object of dispute by the parties.

To support the interpretation it was advancing, the Attorney General of Québec filed an expert report prepared by a law professor from the University of Ottawa. The other parties (supported by the Attorney General of Canada) challenged the admissibility of the report.

At a procedural level, Justice Blanchet inquired as to whether a determination on the report should await the merits, after the expert’s testimony was heard under reserve. He decided it should not:

[9]  En effet, lorsque l’objection au dépôt d’un rapport d’expertise et au témoignage de son auteur porte non seulement sur la pertinence, l’utilité ou la valeur probante de la preuve en cause, mais aussi et surtout sur sa recevabilité en droit, le juge qui en est saisi, à quelque étape du dossier que ce soit, devrait en décider dès que possible, de façon à éviter aux parties des frais et délais inutiles. Le principe s’impose de façon plus impérative encore lorsque, comme ici, l’inadmissibilité de l’expertise paraît évidente.

[Emphasis added; footnotes omitted]

On the substantive issue, Justice Blanchet considered whether the expert report could be adduced as evidence. The key question, succinctly stated by the Court, is whether the litigation involves complex scientific or technical questions, or whether trial judge is otherwise able to understand the facts and reach appropriate conclusions.

The focus, therefore, is not on whether the expert report could be helpful to the Court in the same way jurisprudence or doctrine could be helpful by elucidating the legal principles involved. The focus is on whether the judge requires additional assistance to understand the facts.

“Facts”, as Justice Blanchet observes, include legislative facts. Legislative facts are facts establishing the history and purpose of a law, including its social, economic and cultural context. For instance, the Court may want to inquire on the social context in which a law was enacted in order to evaluate its constitutionality.

Yet sociological inquiries must be distinguished from legal ones. Justice Blanchet explains that no expert should be used to assist the Court in situating a law in its juridical context. It is the sole task of the trial judge to determine what intention the legislator expressed in the text of a law.

Applying these principles to the case at bar, Justice Blanchet determined that the expert report was inadmissible.

He came to this conclusion despite lauding the report as being “remarquable”. But the content of the report was not properly the object of expert testimony.

The first part of the report consisted of a review of certain concepts, without reference whatsoever to the facts of the case. It was “non pas un rapport d’expertise, mais plutôt un ouvrage ou article de doctrine dans sa forme la plus traditionnelle.”

The second and third parts of the report directly addressed legal questions that the Court had to decide in the case at bar. Quoting Parizeau v. Lafrance, Justice Blanchet refused to allow expert evidence on such matters:

[29]  […] Soit dit avec égards, on semble confondre ici deux choses bien distinctes: l’expertise, qui fait partie de la preuve et qui éclaire le juge sur les faits et leur analyse, et la plaidoirie en droit, domaine de compétence des avocats et du tribunal. On ne laisse pas un témoin, tout expert qu’il soit, témoigner sur le droit interne. C’est aux avocats qu’appartient le rôle d’instruire le tribunal à ce sujet.

Ultimately, Justice Blanchet noted that the content of the report, divorced from its application of the law to the facts of the case, could still be referenced as an authority in oral argument. But it was not an admissible expert report in any form. He concluded the decision by writing:

[31]  […] Dans le présent cas, de fait, rien ne devrait faire obstacle, en principe, à ce que l’opinion de Mme Debruche soit ainsi déposée lors des plaidoiries, pour valoir comme doctrine, dans la mesure où on en retrancherait d’abord les extraits liés directement aux faits de l’affaire. De même, il serait aussi loisible aux procureurs du PGQ de s’inspirer de cette opinion dans leur argumentation ou de confier même à l’auteure le mandat de livrer pour eux cette portion de leur plaidoirie devant le tribunal, à la condition, bien sûr, que celle-ci soit inscrite comme membre en règle du Barreau.

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