DJA advises commanders on military law


Maj Bernatchez, left, and Melanie Thornhill provide legal services to DND through the Cold Lake DJA office.
Photo: Jeff Gaye

Jeff Gaye

A typical civilian lawyer’s office space is set up to impress you with trappings of professionalism, success and power.

Maj Henri Bernatchez, the Deputy Judge Advocate (DJA) at CFB Cold Lake, is certainly professional and successful, but his unpretentious office in Building 170 doesn’t send power signals. It is a functional workplace where DND’s military law responsibilities in Cold Lake are taken care of.

Maj Bernatchez trained as a lawyer in Quebec and spent several years in civilian practice. Upon joining the Canadian Armed Forces he received specialized training in military law. Military lawyers are required to maintain their standing in a provincial bar, though not necessarily in the province where they are posted. Maj Bernatchez is a member of the Quebec bar (le Barreau du Québec).

The DJA is a lodger unit on the base, independent from the 4 Wing chain of command. It has a staff of two – Maj Bernatchez and legal administrative assistant Melanie Thornhill. The DJA reports to the Judge Advocate General (JAG) chain of command.

“The JAG branch is the legal counsel, for matters of military law, for the Governor General, DND and the CAF,” Maj Bernatchez said.
Military law consists of three pillars: operational law, administrative law and military justice. As the DJA on a base, Maj Bernatchez is the person to ask when commanding officers have questions about any of the three pillars.

“DJAs are the first line legal advisors at the tactical level in the regions,” he said. “Military law is all we do – anything to do with discipline or military admin matters. We get involved in operations on a base in a limited way, usually when there are domestic operations like responding to a flood or a wildfire.”

Maj Bernatchez says he spends about 40 per cent of his time on administrative law and another 40 per cent on military justice matters. Operational law takes up the remaining 20 per cent.

The latter, he says, “is mostly briefings.”

“We give legal briefings for pre-deployment. For example we will provide briefings on the law of armed conflict, the CAF code of conduct in operations, use of force, rules of engagement,” he said.

“We also offer services for personal legal preparation. For example, when units are going abroad we will help out with filling out power of attorney forms and try to make sure that the member won’t have any legal issues. We will provide briefings on wills and stuff like that.”

Military justice has the highest profile of the three pillars. As DJA, Maj Bernatchez advises the chain of command before and after charges are laid, and provides advice on the conduct of summary trials and courts martial.

The military justice system closely parallels the civilian courts on matters like presumption of innocence and rules of evidence. An accused member is entitled to legal representation, but Maj Bernatchez says members sometimes mistakenly believe that is his role. “My client is DND,” he said. Legal counsel for members involved in the military justice system (and their assisting officers) is available through Defence Counsel Services.