A former Alberta justice minister has been found guilty of criminal contempt for threatening to sue a plaintiff in the middle of her testimony in a civil trial.
Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Doreen Sulyma said Wednesday that a letter sent last week on behalf of Jonathan Denis was an attempt to intimidate Dr. Anny Sauvageau while she was testifying in her lawsuit against the Alberta government.
Sauvageau is accusing the government of wrongfully terminating her contract as chief medical examiner in 2014.
Denis was the justice minister at the time but is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit.
He was not in court Wednesday morning when Sulyma rendered her contempt finding, but was listening in electronically.
On Monday, Denis’s lawyer insisted that the letter was not meant to impact Sauvageau’s ongoing testimony, because it is well-known by lawyers that sworn testimony is protected by absolute privilege.
Brendan Miller told the court that the letter was sent out of concern following the publication of an Edmonton Journal article that Sauvageau or her lawyer were talking to the media outside court.
Sulyma rejected that explanation.
“That is not what the letter said,” the judge said as she read from her written decision. “If it was meant to be directed at the publication … it was not. It was directed at the lawyer for the plaintiff.”
Sulyma acknowledged the chilling effect the letter had on Sauvageau, who said in an affidavit that the letter has caused the return of her need for therapy and anti-anxiety medication. She said she’s also been suffering from insomnia.
“I find that the intention exhibited was to obstruct her testimony and the trial process itself,” Sulyma said.
On Monday through his lawyer, Denis apologized for the “misunderstanding” and accepted full responsibility for what he called the “situation.”
Sulyma acknowledged the apology on Wednesday morning.
“I appreciate his apology, although it applies to what I found to be threatening behaviour, rather than a misunderstanding,” Sulyma said.
Miller told CBC in an emailed statement Wednesday that Denis plans to appeal Sulyma’s decision.
“Our client maintains that the statement was not directed at testimony but rather towards comments to the media,” Miller said.
The letter was sent by an assistant to Kyle Shewchuk, another lawyer in Denis’s Calgary-based Guardian Law firm. Shewchuk was admitted to the bar eight months ago. On Monday, he stood up to apologize.
“This has been a learning experience for me as a new lawyer to the bar,” Shewchuk said earlier in the week.
“I very much appreciate Mr. Shewchuk’s apology,” Sulyma noted on Wednesday.
“It is indeed unfortunate that neither Mr. Denis nor any senior counsel could have given Mr. Shewchuk assistance with the letter and its contents before he shot off this letter at the time he did.”
Jail time not off the table
The parties are scheduled to meet in court again next Thursday to set dates to decide punishment for the contempt and who should pay costs.
University of Alberta law professor Steven Penney told CBC News that no sanctions are named in the Criminal Code for a criminal contempt of court conviction.
“So as a result, there is no express list of the types of punishments that could be available, Penney said. “Traditionally, you basically have two types of punishments. Imprisonment and/or the imposition of a fine.”
Penney thought it was unlikely that the former justice minister would face jail time.
“Imprisonment as a remedy for contempt under circumstances like this I can only assume would be very rare and occur only in extraordinary circumstances,” Penney said.
“I don’t know if it can completely be taken off the table, but I would be surprised, yes.”
Penney said it’s possible Denis could also face sanctions from the Law Society of Alberta.
The law society CEO said she could not comment on matters that are before the court.
“With respect to any next steps to be taken by the Law Society, it is important that our processes be conducted in a fair and unbiased manner, no matter who the lawyer is, or what position they hold or have held in the past,” Elizabeth Osler wrote in an email to CBC News.
Sauvageau returned to the witness stand after the judge handed down her contempt of court decision.
The civil trial is scheduled to last eight weeks.