Quebec judge under fire over sexual assault discharge citing career impact

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A Quebec judge is facing intense criticism and calls for a conduct review after granting a conditional discharge to a man who pleaded guilty to sexual assault — and citing concerns about the man’s career.

Matthieu Poliquin was appointed to the provincial court of Quebec last year by the province’s justice minister, Simon Jolin-Barrette, and is now under fire for saying in his sentencing decision that a criminal record would “have a significant impact” on the engineering career of Simon Houle.

Houle, of Trois-Rivières, Que., had pleaded guilty last year to sexual assault and voyeurism.

Now, a Quebec women’s rights group is organizing a rally “to denounce the judgement issued by Poliquin” outside the Palais de justice du Québec on Thursday at noon.

“We are outraged and furious at this retrograde decision that STILL defends the aggressors,” organizers from Centre Femmes d’aujourd’hui wrote on a Facebook event posting for the rally.

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“Tomorrow, come join us to shout your revolt in front of the Courthouse to denounce the penal system which is designed to protect abusers, their careers and their reputation to the detriment of their victims.”

According to the court decision, the victim “was awoken by the light of a camera” to find Houle assaulting her with his fingers after she had fallen asleep at a friend’s home in 2019 after a night of drinking at a bar with a group of friends, The Canadian Press reported.

Her shirt had been lifted and her bra unfastened, the court decision said.

The woman “panicked” and went to the kitchen, where the accused followed her and brought her back to bed. A search of his phone would later reveal that he had taken nine photos.

Houle admitted during therapy to having assaulted another person in 2015, and Poliquin described that admission as concerning but said it also showed a “desire for transparency.”

Poliquin also wrote in the decision that the assault happened “all in all quickly,” adding that Houle had taken therapy seriously and sincerely regretted his actions.

“A sentence other than a discharge would have a significant impact on his career as an engineer,” the judge wrote. “It is in the general interest that the accused, an asset for society, can continue his professional career.”

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Critics of the decision on social media have also been urging Canadians concerned about the judge to file a complaint with Le Conseil de la magistrature, the independent body that hears complaints about the conduct of provincial court judges in criminal cases.

At the same time, there have been calls from some on Twitter and Reddit for people to submit complaints about Houle based on his guilty plea to the Ordre des ingénieurs du Québec, the professional body that accredits engineers in the province.

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Despite numerous photos of complaints posted online, neither the judicial council nor the engineering order would confirm to Global News whether or how many complaints they have received on the matter.

“Unfortunately, I cannot answer your questions since all complaints remain confidential until the Conseil de la magistrature decides, if necessary, after examining it, to conduct an investigation,” Annie-Claude Bergeron, lawyer and secretary for the judicial council, said in an email.

A spokesperson for the Ordre des ingénieurs du Québec offered similar comment.

“The Ordre des ingénieurs du Québec takes the reputation and dignity associated with the title of engineer seriously. Under professional law, however, the Order cannot comment on a specific file. Requests for investigations and the investigations themselves are confidential,” the spokesperson said.

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In the statement, the Ordre des ingénieurs du Québec also added that anyone who witnesses a “reprehensible” act by an engineer can file a complaint and if the order decides discipline is required following an investigation, the existence of a complaint will be made public.

“It should be noted that the Professional Code provides that members of professional orders – including engineers – may be subject to a disciplinary sanction if they are found guilty or plead guilty to a criminal offence,” the statement continued.

“The sanctions to which a member guilty of an offense is exposed vary according to the seriousness of the acts committed.”

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Michael Spratt, a criminal defence lawyer in Ottawa, said conditional discharges in sexual assault cases have become more rare in Canadian law over recent years.

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“I would say that it is an exceptionally uncommon thing,” he said.

“Especially in the last five years, they’re few and far between.”

Spratt said the directions issued in rulings from courts of appeal as well as the Supreme Court of Canada have emphasized over recent years that sexual assault sentences should be serious, even for first-time offenders, because of the deeply pernicious impact the crimes have on individuals and society.

And while he said the use of the conditional discharge in the current case appears “exceptional and a bit shocking,” Spratt stressed the appropriate channel for challenging any concerns about the basis for the ruling is the Quebec court of appeal.

“We’ve seen this sort of backlash in other cases. It is hard because we don’t have all the same facts that the judge has,” he said.

Spratt emphasized that there are established paths in place in the justice system to challenge rulings, which reflect the general reality that “judges can and do make mistakes.”

“That’s why we have courts of appeal, and it’s right for the public to disagree with the decision, to voice displeasure with the decision. But we have to be very careful that we don’t overly criticize or call for the removal of a judge that makes a mistake. The independence of the judiciary is very important.”

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He continued: “The last thing we want to see is bringing politics onto the bench.”

A spokesperson for the Quebec justice minister said the province passed a law on Nov. 30, 2021, requiring anyone seeking to become a judge in the province to take specialized training on sexual assault laws and the challenges facing victims.

That also applies to retired judges seeking to return to the bench.

The Conseil de la magistrature administers the training for judges in the province and will be required to submit its first report no later than March 2023 about how many judges have taken the training.

“The Department of Justice will look forward to the first version of this report,” said Isabelle Boily, spokesperson for the minister’s office, in an email on Wednesday.

Boily said Quebec’s law “goes further than the federal law, in particular since it requires retired judges and retired presiding justices of the peace to have completed the training program offered by the Conseil de la magistrature when they are appointed new to sit.”

“Out of respect for the legal process, we will not comment further,” she added.

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Poliquin was appointed to the bench in September 2021.

The federal government passed a law in May 2021 requiring new federally appointed judges to take specialized training in sexual assault law as part of an effort to counter sexism and prejudice against sexual assault victims in the legal system.

Justice Minister David Lametti would not comment when asked whether he believes there should be a review or study into how conditional discharges are used in cases of sexual assault.

“Our Government is absolutely committed to ensuring that Canada’s criminal justice system shows compassion to victims, holds offenders to account and upholds the Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” Lametti’s press secretary, Chantalle Aubertin, said in an email.

“Given this matter is being appealed by the [DPCP], it would be inappropriate to comment.”

The DPCP is the Directeur des poursuites criminelles et pénales, or the Crown prosecutor for the province, and has confirmed it will seek leave to appeal the decision.

— with files from Global’s Rachel Gilmore and The Canadian Press.

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