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Court staffer's suit no conflict, judge rules

Spat over business deal can be heard, despite man's court connections

A North Vancouver judge has ruled there is no reason a civil lawsuit can't be heard in provincial court, even though one of the men involved works part-time for the court as a judicial justice.

Judge Joanne Challenger ruled recently that while "public confidence in the justice system is dependent on the impartiality of judges in making their decisions," she was not convinced the relationship between the justice and the court was enough to create an obvious bias.

Challenger said there is no interrelationship between the roles of regular provincial court judges and judicial justices.

Judicial justices are lawyers with special training, who adjudicate more minor disputes like traffic tickets. They also conduct bail hearings and grant search warrant applications - often in telephone hearings - from the Justice Centre, particularly when regular court isn't in session.

In the North Vancouver case, Edward Pielak and Hunter Gordon sued each other over a business deal gone sour.

Partway through the trial, Pielak discovered that Gordon worked part-time as a judicial justice who hears traffic ticket cases in a provincial court on Vancouver Island.

Pielak applied for a mistrial, arguing Gordon's position with the court meant it wouldn't be possible for a provincial court judge to deal with the case impartially.

But last month, Challenger rejected that. In making her decision, the judge said there is no professional relationship between provincial court judges and judicial justices such as Gordon. The two perform different roles, she said, adding she wasn't aware of Gordon's position until Pielak raised it.

"To my recollection, Mr. Gordon has never sat in any courthouse at the same time when I have been presiding," she added.

Challenger said she's not aware of any prior cases involving questions of potential bias where one of the parties involved in a case is also a judicial officer of the same court.

In making her ruling, Challenger noted the presumption of judicial impartiality carries significant weight and the burden of proof is on the person asking that a judge be disqualified from a case.

That test has not been met, she said. There are more than 150 provincial court judges and close to 35 judicial justices working for the provincial court throughout the province.