Military justice system at crossroads as court hears case on judges’ independence

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OTTAWA — Canada’s military justice system will be on trial again Friday, when an appeal court weighs whether the handful of judges responsible for overseeing courts martial are truly independent.

The case revolves around then-defence chief Jonathan Vance’s decision in October 2019 to place responsibility for disciplining the military’s four judges with an officer of his own choosing.

Three of those judges subsequently stayed several cases, saying that Vance’s order impinged upon their independence and thus robbed the accused service members of their right to a fair trial.

The fate of those courts martial, including one involving three counts of sexual assault against an officer in British Columbia, now hang in the balance as the Court Martial Appeal Court prepares to hear the case.

The case has focused attention on a long-standing complaint from military-law experts and lawyers, who say the judges have never been truly independent.

The case also underscores what the experts say is the need for a major overhaul of the court martial system, which is currently the subject of an independent review and has been without a permanent chief military judge since March.