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Morton Minc – the man who transformed Montreal’s court system

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Morton Minc

Morton Minc was born right at the end of the Second World War – April 28, 1945 – in Lublin, Poland, which was notorious for its ghetto and mass deportations of Jews to the death camps.

His parents, who were passing as Christians under false papers, were on the run during the Holocaust, ending up in a displaced persons camp, before setting sail for Canada with their two small children.

They landed at Halifax’s Pier 21, before heading to Montreal, where one of their cousins lived. Once prominent in Lublin, the family was virtually penniless when they arrived in Canada.

“My mother worked at a bakery and my father at Warshaw’s (grocery store). He studied accounting at Sir George at night and eventually got a degree,” said Minc.

This background and a keen sense of Jewish ethics led Minc to transform Montreal’s municipal court from a place to contest traffic tickets, to an agent for social change.

On May 17, Minc’s achievements as chief justice of that court will be recognized, when he is awarded the Ordre de Montréal, the city’s highest citation, by Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante. He is among 18 Montrealers who are being honoured for having “contributed in a remarkable way to the city’s development and reputation.” The order was established last year, as part of the city’s 375th anniversary celebrations.

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Minc, who had practised mainly commercial law, was appointed to the municipal court in 1993 and served as its chief justice from 2009, until he retired in 2015. He was the first Jew to hold the position.

He established special “problem-solving” divisions within the court, with the goal of improving justice for the disadvantaged – whether victim, or offender. He created or revitalized programs for people with mental illness or addiction, the homeless, as well as elderly people and women who have been abused.

People with these problems showed up repeatedly in his court. Minc wanted to identify the root causes of their behaviour and find solutions to end the cycle.

He brought together judges, Crown prosecutors, defence lawyers, the police and outside specialists to devise plans for offenders, such as treating their substance abuse or mental illnesses – with their consent.

The rate of recidivism dropped drastically and many first-time offenders avoided a criminal record, he said.

“What was the use of keeping on putting them in jail, or giving them fines they couldn’t pay? Better that they be rehabilitated and become functioning members of society,” said Minc.

What was the use of keeping on putting them in jail, or giving them fines they couldn’t pay? Better that they be rehabilitated and become functioning members of society.
– Morton Minc

It was a busy court. The 32 judges heard 15,000 criminal and 60,000 non-criminal cases a year.

In 2014, Minc was given the Prix de la Justice du Québec, the province’s highest honour in the field of law, for making the justice system more accessible. He was cited for his promotion of social rehabilitation, support for victims and “respect for human dignity in the dispensing of justice.”

Minc earned his law degree at the Université de Montréal, recognizing that he needed to be fluent in French to practise effectively in Quebec, and passed the bar in 1973.

His experience chairing the American Judges Association’s therapeutic justice committee and visiting American “problem-solving” courts inspired him to implement this vision in Montreal. Under his watch, the city’s court became a model that attracted the interest of professionals and academics. The Montreal Bar Association offers a training module on its social programs and judges from across Canada, including the Supreme Court, and elsewhere, have visited Minc’s court.

Far from retired, Minc now has two jobs. He is chair of the Conseil de la justice administrative, the provincial body composed of jurists and citizens that looks into complaints from the public about the conduct of judges of such bodies as rental boards and labour tribunals. Named in late 2016, Minc notes that he is the first Jew in that role.

In September, he also became the first jurist-in-residence at Concordia University, which thought Minc’s long experience in social justice could benefit students. Minc is, in fact, the first to hold such an appointment at any English university in Quebec.

Although Concordia has no law faculty, the history department offers a minor in a law and society program.

“This is a wonderful opportunity to pique students’ interest in the law and instill a love and interest for the legal profession,” said Minc, who has a two-year mandate.

Minc is gratified that his parents, lived to see him appointed as a judge. “It was a very proud moment. I would not have been there without their sacrifice,” he said.