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

Parksville Lawn Bowling Club on a roll for artificial turf

Project to cost over $500,000 but will save club money

More Parksville pop-up water parks planned

Fire department says Sunday, Aug. 18 next one on the agenda

Hi Neighbour Day celebrates 50th year in Errington

Pancake breakfast, parade, zucchini race and more planned for this years’ festivities

Semi-truck crashes on Hwy. 4 between Port Alberni and Tofino-Ucluelet

Drivers heading in or out of Tofino-Ucluelet Friday afternoon should expect delays

Errington scrap wood fire still under investigation

Three fire departments deployed to battle highly visible blaze

VIDEO: Langley Ribfest met with protesters

Groups that oppose the event for various reasons plan to be on site each of the three days.

Canadians killed in Afghanistan honoured during emotional dedication ceremony

One-hundred-fifty-eight Canadian soldiers died during the mission

It’s snow joke: Up to 30 cm of snow expected to fall in northeastern B.C.

Alaska Highway, Fort Nelson to be hit with August snowstorm, according to Environment Canada

‘I’m just absolutely disgusted’: Husband furious after B.C. Mountie’s killer gets day parole

Kenneth Fenton was sentenced to prison after he fatally struck Const. Sarah Beckett’s cruiser

Sea-to-Sky Gondola in B.C. likely out of commission until 2020

Sea to Sky Gondola carries between 1,500 and 3,000 people every day during the summer season

Helicopter-riding dog Mr. Bentley now featured on cans of new B.C.-made beer

Partial proceeds from every pack go to Children’s Wish

PHOTOS: Weapons seized at Portland right-wing rally, counterprotests

Not all who gathered Saturday were with right-wing groups or antifa

Ferries employees participating in Denman Island cleanup for plastic-shedding ferry

The cleanup comes a few weeks after one organized by residents of the Island

Discussion on grief and loss between Stephen Colbert, Anderson Cooper goes viral

The exchange includes emotional question from Cooper, and outlook on grief as a child

Most Read