The group representing multiple churches fighting public health orders in court admitted on Monday it hired a private investigator to follow a Manitoba judge presiding over the case.
The admission came after Manitoba's chief justice said he was tailed by a private investigator in an attempt to catch him breaking COVID-19 rules in order to embarrass him while he presides over the court challenge related to the province's lockdown measures.
Court of Queen's Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal revealed this information during a hearing Monday morning for the case, which was brought forward by seven rural Manitoba churches.
A lawyer for the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which launched the challenge on behalf of the group of churches and individuals, later admitted his organization hired the private investigator, though he said it was not an attempt to influence the decision in the case.
Chief Justice says he was followed to home, cottage
During the virtual hearing, Joyal said he realized he was being followed by a vehicle on July 8 when leaving the Manitoba law courts building in downtown Winnipeg and driving around the city.
He said the private investigator even followed him to his private residence and had a young boy ring his doorbell while he wasn't home in an attempt to confirm where he lives. The private investigator also followed him to his cottage, Joyal said.
Joyal said this revelation will not influence his decision in the case, but said it would be "unthinkable" to not share it with the court because of its potential implications in the administration of justice.
He said the surveillance of his home and intrusion of his privacy raise serious concerns about the privacy and safety of judges generally. This type of activity could also be seen as obstruction of justice, either direct or indirect, he said.
"I am deeply concerned that this type of private investigative surveillance conduct could or would be used in any case involving any presiding judge in a high-profile adjudication," he said.
At the beginning of the hearing, Joyal said he did not know who hired the private investigation agency and that it refused to reveal that information. He also said Winnipeg police are investigating.
Lawyer admits to hiring private detective
After a break in the hearing, John Carpay, a lawyer representing the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, said it was his organization that had retained the private investigator to follow Joyal as part of their efforts to hold government officials accountable.
He told the court the organization has hired private investigators to follow a number of public officials in order to catch them breaking public health regulations, and that it was not related to the centre's litigation in Manitoba. However, he apologized for the error in judgment.
Jay Cameron, another lawyer representing the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms in the court challenge, also apologized to Joyal for his role.
Carpay said in a statement that the decision was meant to hold officials accountable and was his own initiative. He said he did not discuss it with Justice Centre clients, staff lawyers or members of the board.
He said "Manitoba's leadership" were tailed by private investigators to determine if they were breaching public health orders, but no other judges were followed.
CBC News has asked which members of the province's leadership have been followed, but the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms has not yet responded.
A spokesperson for the Winnipeg Police Service confirmed they are investigating the matter but said they could not comment further.
Hearings were held this May for the court challenge, where court heard testimony from health officials, including Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin, and church leaders.
The seven churches have argued in court the public health orders — which have curtailed or banned church attendance at various times — violate the charter freedoms of conscience, religion, expression and peaceful assembly.
The province's lawyers have stated the limits on personal freedoms are a reasonable measure to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Public figures harassed
Justice Minister Cameron Friesen said in an emailed statement that he's very concerned about what was revealed by the Chief Justice.
"Our government believes that no one should ever be in a position where they feel unsafe doing their job; this includes those who have been called to the bench," he said.
"Similar situations have been experienced by the premier recently. As these matters are currently under investigation, I am not in a position to comment further."
During a news conference Monday, Roussin said he was not aware of being followed by a private investigator, but he said he and his family have received numerous threats over the course of the pandemic.
He said he's even noticed some suspicious activity around his home that he reported to law enforcement.
"You know, it's understandable that this has had a huge toll on Manitobans. But I don't think that any of us can legitimately accept that threats against someone or their family is acceptable," Roussin said.
WATCH | Dr. Brent Roussin on receiving threats during pandemic:
Bar associations, judge condemn incident
Joyal said Monday he expects to give his decision in a few weeks. He said he accepted both Carpay and Cameron's apologies and could proceed in writing his decision without bias.
"For my part, despite my grave, grave concerns about what's happened and the administration of justice, it does go a ways, a significant ways, to at least hear counsel accept responsibility for what's happened," he said.
Despite my grave, grave concerns about what's happened and the administration of justice, it does go a ways ... to at least hear counsel accept responsibility for what's happened. - Court of Queen's Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal
The heads of both the Canadian Bar Association and the Manitoba Bar Association denounced the incident in an emailed statement, saying the use of a private investigator to follow a sitting judge threatens the integrity of proceedings before the court, bringing the administration of justice into disrepute, and is a violation of Joyal's right to privacy.
The statement, co-authored by Canadian Bar Association president Brad Regehr and Manitoba Bar Association president Ian Scarth, said it was particularly disturbing that Joyal's home and cottage were known to the investigator.
"We condemn this kind of behaviour being directed against a judge and at no time would it have any place in the conduct of a trial."
Chief Judge Margaret Wiebe of the Provincial Court of Manitoba also extended her support to Joyal in an emailed statement Monday afternoon, saying she shared his concerns about the intrusion of privacy.
"The fact that any party to a proceeding would hire a private investigator to follow a Chief Justice, or indeed any Judge, to attempt to gather information to embarrass or intimidate them in any way is shocking and an affront to the democratic principles we live by as well as to the administration of justice generally," she wrote.
WATCH | Group had Manitoba's chief justice followed: