After dragging through the courts for almost a decade, the case of Joanna Gualtieri has produced an important development.
In 1998, the Department of Foreign Affairs whistle-blower -- who exposed lavish waste and extravagance within Foreign Affairs in the 1990s --left Foreign Affairs and sued her bosses for harassment. More than nine years later, a pre-trial judge has issued an important ruling, criticizing some of the government lawyers' methods and calling for these tactics to end.
In a ruling released last month, Superior Court Master Robert Beaudoin observed that the pre-trial discovery process "has taken on the dimensions of a public inquiry," and that the volume of the government's requests represents "an abuse of the discovery procedure."
Thus far, Ms. Gualtieri has been asked over 10,500 questions, many of them irrelevant to the case, and submitted to 31 days of examination in court. Prior to this latest decision, the discovery process seemed destined to continue indefinitely.
Since leaving Foreign Affairs, Ms. Gualtieri has been on unpaid medical leave with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. She has twice collapsed during or after the examination process, and her doctors have had to call for periods of respite. The judge notes that the impact of these proceedings on her health "has not been seriously disputed and cannot be ignored."
Why do government lawyers feel the need to resort to such practices when they already enjoy the overwhelming advantage of unlimited time and resources -- in a case against an individual with serious health problems and no financial support (e.g., from a union) to cover her mounting legal costs?
This case also calls into question the Conservatives' commitment to protect whistle-blowers -- a central part of the anti-corruption platform on which they came to power. This is not an obscure case that could have escaped their notice: Ms. Gualtieri is one of Canada's best known and most respected whistle-blowers. Her work at Foreign Affairs was acknowledged by the Conservatives in their election platform document --alongside their election promises to protect gallant truth-tellers such as her. The Conservatives are fully aware of how her ordeal has continued on their watch, yet there has been no apparent change in the tactics of the government's lawyers.
While last month's ruling has served to embarrass the government side, it is not clear that it will significantly improve Ms. Gualtieri's prospects. The ruling ends the abuse of a legal procedure--discovery -- whose overuse has contributed to years of delay. However, other procedures such as pre-trial motions can still be employed, causing further delays and costs.
Other whistle-blowers observe that it is common for the bureaucracy to drag out legal proceedings until the litigant is emotionally and financially exhausted, and then to offer a minimal settlement that includes a gag order. In this way the truth-teller, who has typically been muzzled by bosses and then muzzled again during the legal process, also remains muzzled afterwards -- and there is no risk of a trial causing embarrassing disclosures.
It is ironic that a great deal of public money -- probably millions -- is being wasted on this case, apparently in an attempt to silence someone who was striving to prevent the waste of public money.
It also is ironic that most of the officials named in this case are now comfortably retired, with their pensions and their reputations unblemished, and with the taxpayer picking up the tab for their defence -- while a conscientious citizen who is not accused of anything has lost her career, her health and 15 years of her life, and is on the hook for the crippling legal costs still being incurred.
What should be done? The Minister of Justice is responsible for the conduct of his department's lawyers. The Minister also has the power, after due diligence, to instruct them to settle this case promptly -- compensating Ms. Gualtieri fairly and appropriately for the loss of her vocation, health, and for the ordeal that she has endured.
How will the Minister respond to the judge's latest ruling? Through his actions, he will reveal his government's true stripes. - David Kilgour is a former Canadian Secretary of State. Dr. Michele Brill-Edwards is a former Health Canada whistle-blower. Brian Mc-Adam is a former Foreign Affairs whistle-blower. David Hutton is a consultant and author. He can be reached at email@example.com.