A contempt of court finding against a former Alberta justice minister was overturned Monday morning by the Alberta Court of Appeal.
Jonathan Denis was found in contempt of court earlier this year, in relation to a letter his lawyer sent to a witness testifying in a trial.
That letter allegedly intimidated a witness: Dr. Anny Sauvageau, former Alberta chief medical examiner.
All three judges unanimously agreed the original decision was “procedurally flawed” and allowed the appeal, quashing the contempt finding altogether.
Sauvageau was suing the province over lost wages when her contract was not renewed back in 2014, when Denis was Justice Minister.
Denis’ lawyer, Kyle Shewchuk wrote a letter to Sauvageau’s lawyer that read in part, “We have been closely watching Dr. Sauvageau’s current trial and are aware that, the report’s findings notwithstanding, Dr. Sauvageau’s defamation of Mr. Denis has continued unabated.
“Mr. Denis is a known and respected lawyer and businessperson and will not tolerate these tortious actions against him. These actions must forthwith cease and we reserve the right to refer to this correspondence should Dr. Sauvageau’s defamation continue.”
Testimony provided inside a courtroom is privileged, traditionally protected from issues like this.
In response, Dr. Sauvageau’s counsel, Allan Garber, filed an affidavit wherein she stated, “I am now fearful to give my evidence in this trial. I cannot afford to defend a defamation lawsuit.”
Garber asked the judge for direction on what to do next.
Court of King’s Bench Justice Doreen Sulyma originally found Denis in contempt of court, saying the letter made Sauvageau scared to testify plainly and honestly and also caused another witness to decide not to testify at all.
For his part, Shewchuk stood and apologized to the court.
“This has been a learning experience for me, as I’m a new lawyer to the bar,” Shewchuk said in April.
In the appeal another lawyer, Peter Sankoff, represented Denis.
Sankoff argued, “I think the whole thing should be quashed because the procedure was unfair.”
He said Denis didn’t receive a proper hearing to defend himself and that contempt for intimidating a witness is a serious allegation.
“He was found to be guilty of a crime he didn’t have a trial for,” Sankoff said.
He added it was wrong for Sulyma to make the finding in the first place.
“The judge is concerned about the impact on her courtroom and that’s why it needs to go to another judge to adjudicate the matter.”
Neither Garber nor the Attorney General on behalf of Alberta Justice attended the appeal.
Denis did not make an appearance in the courtroom.
“Mr. Denis is pleased to have this issue settled and the record cleared,” Peter Sankoff, Denis’s lawyer, said Tuesday after the appeal court justices unanimously overturned the finding.
Denis expressed his relief in a written statement.
“I am grateful to have this behind me and to see that justice has been served. There was never any intent to influence testimony,” Denis said.
“As a member of the bar, I take the responsibilities of my profession very seriously. My goal is to conduct myself in a way that is positive and lawful. My deepest apologies to those who may have thought otherwise.”
Denis was not named in the lawsuit, but was Alberta’s justice minister from 2012 to 2015.
— With files from The Canadian Press