Former Alberta justice minister loses bid to stay contempt of court decision

Former Alberta Justice Minister Jonathan Denis pictured in August 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

A former Alberta justice minister has failed to persuade a judge to set aside a ruling that found him in contempt of court for witness intimidation.

Jonathan Denis failed to make a case for why the lower-court ruling should be stayed, Alberta Appeal Court Justice Ritu Khullar said Monday.

Khullar noted that Denis has already filed a challenge of the contempt decision and an appeal hearing remains the best place to hash that out.

“This court cannot generally stay an actual decision, such as a finding of contempt,” Khullar wrote in her decision.

“Whether that finding stands or not will be determined in the appeal proper.”

Story continues below advertisement

Denis had also asked the judge to delay penalties and costs he could face for contempt until after the appeal is heard. He argued that he is facing harm to his reputation and that three of his firm’s lawyers and one client have left over the affair.

He said there is a concern that the plaintiff, Dr. Anny Sauvageau, may not have the funds to compensate him if he wins the appeal.

Khullar, however, refused to grant that request.

She said Denis failed to persuade her that delaying a hearing into penalties and costs would somehow cause permanent damage to his law firm.

“Inconvenience and thrown-away costs do not amount to irreparable harm in this case,” wrote Khullar.

Click to play video: 'Former Alberta justice minister found in contempt of court for letter'
Former Alberta justice minister found in contempt of court for letter

Denis was found in contempt on April 13 after his law firm wrote a letter threatening to sue Sauvageau, Alberta’s former chief medical examiner, for defamation while she was giving testimony in her wrongful dismissal lawsuit against the province.

Story continues below advertisement

Sauvageau is suing the government for lost wages and benefits after her contract was not renewed in 2014.

She alleges she was forced out of the job as punishment after raising concerns over what she saw as political interference in cases and over billing on body pickups. The government has said she was acting outside the scope of her job and making questionable decisions.

Denis is not a defendant in the lawsuit but was justice minister at the time of the allegations.

The trial judge who found Denis in contempt, Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Doreen Sulyma, said the threatening letter to Sauvageau made her fearful of testifying plainly and honestly, and prompted another witness to beg off testifying altogether.

Last week, Denis’s lawyer, Brendan Miller, argued for the stay. He said, among other things, Sulyma should not have made such a consequential decision as contempt of court without allowing Denis to first put up evidence and cross-examine witnesses in his defence.

Khullar agreed. She said while Sulyma was working to keep the two-month Sauvaugeau trial on schedule and avoid a mistrial, “the proper procedure to be followed in addressing the concerns raised by the (defamation threat) letter does raise a serious issue to be tried (on appeal).”

Story continues below advertisement

Miller responded to Khullar’s decision in a short statement: “We are pleased that the Court of Appeal found that there is a serious issue to be tried regarding our position that the proper procedure was not followed at the lower court.

“This matter is over one letter sent from one lawyer to another, and we believe there could have been an entirely different result had the proper procedure been followed.”

Sponsored content