Former Alberta justice minister Jonathan Denis cleared on contempt of court conviction

Former Alberta justice minister Jonathan Denis said Monday he's grateful that the province's highest court has set aside his contempt of court conviction. (CBC - image credit)
Former Alberta justice minister Jonathan Denis said Monday he's grateful that the province's highest court has set aside his contempt of court conviction. (CBC - image credit)

Alberta's highest court has struck down a contempt of court conviction against Jonathan Denis, a former minister of justice in the province.

In a unanimous ruling delivered from the bench on Monday afternoon, a panel of three Court of Appeal of Alberta judges called the lower court's conviction "procedurally flawed."

In April, Denis was found guilty of contempt of court by Court of King's Bench Justice Doreen Sulyma after a letter was sent on his behalf to former chief medical examiner Anny Sauvageau.

Sauvageau was on the witness stand at the time, testifying in her $7.6 million wrongful dismissal suit against the Alberta government.

Sulyma acknowledged the chilling effect the letter had on Sauvageau.

"I find that the intention exhibited was to obstruct her testimony and the trial process itself," Sulyma said, finding Denis guilty of contempt of court.

"This was a contempt proceeding that went awry," Denis's lawyer Peter Sankoff told the Court of Appeal on Monday.

"The judge is concerned about the impact on her courtroom. That's why it needs to go to another judge to adjudicate the matter."

Sankoff suggested the proper procedure would have been for Sulyma to cite Denis for contempt of court and then hand off the file to another Court of King's Bench judge to hear evidence, after giving Denis proper notice and time to mount a defence.

Francois Joly/Radio-Canada
Francois Joly/Radio-Canada

"It's kind of hard to point out how many times [Sulyma] went wrong in this matter," Sankoff said.

"I think the whole thing should be quashed because the process was unfair."

The lawyers who represented Sauvageau and Alberta Justice in the civil case were invited to make submissions, but neither attended court on Monday, informing the court they took no position on the issue.

After listening to brief oral arguments from Sankoff, the three judges asked for 10 minutes to deliberate. They returned with a rare decision issued from the bench.

They set aside the citation and finding of contempt of court against Denis.

'Justice has been served'

Denis was Alberta's justice minister under the Progressive Conservative government from 2012 to 2015.

In a written statement issued Monday through his lawyer, Denis said: "I am grateful to have this behind me and to see that justice has been served.

"There was never any intent to influence testimony."

Outside court, Sankoff said he and his client were pleased to have the matter settled so quickly.

"[Sulyma] reached a conclusion without hearing any actual evidence," Sankoff said. "That is not the way a contempt proceeding should run."

A few days after Sauvageau received the letter from Denis's law firm, she resumed testifying.

Last month, Sauvageau dropped her wrongful dismissal suit against the government.