Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada Richard Wagner participates in a media availability in Ottawa on Friday, June 22, 2018. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang)

Canada’s chief justice urges ‘major reforms’ to judge oversight

Richard Wagner said he would be launching a review of the Canadian Judicial Council

The body that handles complaints about the behaviour of federally appointed judges is in need of both internal and legislative reform to streamline what is now a cumbersome disciplinary process, Canada’s top judge says.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Chief Justice Richard Wagner said he would be launching this week a sweeping review of the Canadian Judicial Council, which has come under harsh criticism for some of its actions.

READ MORE: Judges on Twitter? Ethical guidance for those on the bench under review

“I’ve always said this judicial conduct process is much too long, much too expensive, and it should be corrected,” Wagner said from Ottawa. “We will look at our own internal management at CJC to decide whether there are not things we can do without legislative amendments within our own management to improve things.”

Wagner said he is reaching out to senior judges across the country to garner their views on what changes are needed. Areas include the council’s mission, how its various committees are appointed, and the crucial role of the executive director, who wields significant power as complaints gatekeeper.

“Everything is on the table,” Wagner said.

Last year, a former senior Manitoba justice and dozens of lawyers reacted angrily after the executive director, Norman Sabourin, initiated action against a prominent Ontario Superior Court judge who, with the blessing of his superiors, had accepted a six-month law school deanship at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont. The council later ruled that Justice Patrick Smith had committed judicial misconduct but urged no further action.

In a letter to Wagner, who is head of the council, Sen. Murray Sinclair said last fall he was “deeply troubled” by the Smith review and urged council to reflect “on its own role and mandate.”

Separately, 36 lawyers in Thunder Bay criticized what they saw as the “outrageous” persecution of the judge, while lawyer Brian Gover, who represents Smith in ongoing court action against the council, said the legal community had been shocked.

“The CJC is facing a fierce counter-attack such as they have never seen before,” Gover said at the time.

The review comes amid a parallel effort by the council to update its ethical guidance for judges — something last done more than 20 years ago. The council has asked for public input on a range of issues, such as whether judges should be on social media or whether there should be restrictions on the work they do after leaving the bench.

Wagner, who became chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada 15 months ago, said he has long wanted to look at how the judicial council and the courts themselves were working. The aim, he said, was to modernize both to ensure they were efficient, relevant and able to meet emerging challenges such as the growth in self-represented litigants.

“It’s a good thing to look at those issues when society has evolved, has changed. Expectations have changed also. I thought it was a good time to look at it. It’s a major work to make sure that the judiciary is still relevant.”

Wagner said he did not favour judges engaging on social media and potentially compromising their status as aloof from social and political debate. At the same time, he said, the courts and other judicial entities, as the Supreme Court does, should use social media to disseminate their messages and decisions

“We need to be relevant,” Wagner said of the ethical guidance update. “This is a parallel exercise and, at the end of the day, it will be successful but we need major reforms for judicial conduct.”

While one of the survey questions touches on the situation Smith found himself in, Wagner said he could not discuss specific cases that are before the courts but said discussing reforms was important. He noted that his predecessor Beverley McLachlin had asked for legislative changes to enhance the council’s work.

Judges who are subject to a complaint and citizens need to know what to expect and that complaints will be handled expeditiously, the chief justice said, adding the current process is “very heavy.”

“If the judge has to be removed, he has to be removed quickly and without too much cost to society,” Wagner said. ”We need reforms. Parliament should find a way to make sure that these matters don’t drag for too long and aren’t too expensive.”

A spokeswoman said the council welcomed the review and had already begun adding “clarity and transparency” to its work.

“We have presented a number of proposals to the Department of Justice that would lead to a more efficient and less costly process,” Johanna Laporte said.

Wagner said he hoped to be able to announce the results of the review within the next several months.

Neither the justice minister nor Ministry of Justice had any comment.

Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

Just Posted

Contempt charge against Balfour logging protesters dropped on technicality

A B.C. Supreme Court justice ruled Cooper Creek Cedar failed to file a contempt application

Developer offers details for former Kerr Apartment site

Wayne Woodward is planning a five-storey building on Victoria Street

Jail time for driver involved in Castlegar road rampage

Sean Patrick Byrne caused havoc on Castlegar roads in November

UPDATED: Meth possession charges considered after car rolls off Nelson highway

Vehicle landed beside the Rosemont pedestrian trail

Kootenay Lake’s first marine waste pump-out opens

Sewage facility is located at the Prestige marina

Disney Plus to launch in Canada in November

Analysts say latest streaming service may escalate cord cutting

B.C. manhunt suspects left cellphone video before they died: family

Family member says Kam McLeod, Bryer Schmegelsky recorded final wishes

Okanagan bus driver assaulted for asking patron not to smoke

59-year-old in hospital with non-life threatening injuries

B.C. sets rules for ride hailing, same minimum fee as taxis

Larger operating areas seen as threat by cab companies

Two hiking families team up to extinguish fire in B.C. backcountry

Children and their parents worked for three hours to ensure safety of the popular hiking region

Vancouver man arrested after pregnant woman’s SUV stolen, then crashed

Police are recommending charges against a 22-year-old Vancouver man

Elections Canada to assess ‘partisan’ climate change rhetoric case by case

People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier has said climate change is not an emergency nor caused by human

Unseasonable snow forces campers out of northeastern B.C. provincial park

Storm brought as much as 35 centimetres of snow to the Fort Nelson, Muncho Lake Park-Stone Mountain Park

Most Read