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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Hope’s first chainsaw carving of John Rambo is removed from in front of district hall, to save the carving from winter weather. (Rambo ‘First Blood’ Tourism/Facebook photo)
Hope’s Rambo carving tucked away for the winter

Not to worry, the $10,000 statue has not been carted away by thieves

This image from Linda Brown of the Chilliwack Plowing Match won a photography contest for Chilliwack-Hope MP Mark Strahl’s annual calendar. Her photo was featured for April 2020 in the Chilliwack—Hope constituency calendar. (Linda Brown photograph)
Annual call out for Chilliwack-Hope constituency calendar photo contest

Photos will be featured in MP Mark Strahl’s calendar for 2021

Pixabay photo
‘Horrific’ abuse of volunteers and COVID-19 contact tracers must stop, Chilliwack soccer club says

Parents have become abusive after being told COVID-19 rules, email says

Mark Strahl, MP for Chilliwack-Hope in the virtual House of Commons Oct. 26, 2020 going to bat for Fraser Valley Speciality Poultry. (Mark Strahl/Facebook)
MP Strahl goes to bat for Chilliwack farmer in the virtual House of Commons

‘Why are the Liberals running roughshod over this hard-working Canadian farmer?’ MP asked

Since she returned to Hope after a 50-year absence, Holly Smith has been taking in the beauty of the waters surrounding her. 'Water Music' is her ode to this beauty, a backroom show at the Hope Arts Gallery that runs November long. (Submitted/Holly Smith photo)
Painting the music of Hope’s rivers, lakes, marshes and creeks

Watercolour and acrylic artist Holly Smith presents ‘Water Music’, gallery’s November backroom show

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry arrives for briefing on the COVID-19 situation, B.C. legislature, Oct. 26, 2020 (B.C. government)
B.C. records 217 more COVID-19 cases, mask use urged

Infection spike continues, 21 senior facilities affected

The B.C. Teacher Regulation Branch has issued a decision about the actions of an elementary school teacher in Langley. (Langley Advance Times files)
Lower Mainland elementary teacher credentials suspended for two weeks for grabbing, shoving, and yelling at kids

Roxann Rojas will lose her legal authority to teach for two weeks from Oct. 25 to Nov. 7, 2020

A raccoon paid a visit to a Toronto Tim Hortons on Oct. 22, 2020. (shecallsmedrew/Twitter)
Who are you calling a trash panda? Raccoon takes a shift at Toronto Tim Hortons

Tim Hortons said animal control was called as soon they saw the surprise visitor

Lawrence Nadessan, 44, was last seen on Oct. 24 at 11:30 p.m. in Maple Ridge.
Maple Ridge man missing since Saturday is extremely out of character, family says

Cameras saw him leaving home, not dressed for the weather

A group of Abbotsford secondary principals’s and vice-principals are at a retreat in Whistler this weekend. (Whistler.com photo)
Abbotsford principals attend retreat in Whistler despite COVID-19 gathering restrictions

Reported group of 20 did follow COVID-19 protocols during Whistler Pro-D event, says school district

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

The duffel bags were found to contain 84 pounds of cocaine, valued at approximately $1.2 million and 198 pounds of methamphetamine, valued at approximately $960,000. Photo courtesy U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
2 men accused of fleeing border agents near U.S.-B.C. border with $2M in drugs

Cocaine and methamphetamine seized by U.S. law enforcement in remote Idaho area near Canadian border

FILE – The Queen of Alberni ferry leaves the Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal in Delta bound for Vancouver Island, Sunday, July 29, 2007. (CP PHOTO/Richard Lam) CANADA
Mechanical failure leaves nearly 200 passengers stranded on BC Ferries ship for hours

A tug arrived after dark to safely nudge the vessel into a berth so travellers could finally disembark

Ridge Meadows RCMP (Black Press)
Maple Ridge X-ray tech convicted of sexual assault dating back 30 years

Allen James Brooks is expected to be sentenced in January 2021

Most Read