Skip to content

More diversity on courtroom benches welcome, top judge Wagner says


OTTAWA — Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Wagner said Thursday he would welcome more diversity on courtroom benches, but he refused to be drawn into a broader discussion of systemic racism.

At his annual news conference, Wagner said it is essential that Canadians recognize themselves in their own institutions, including the courts. No visible minorities sit on the nine-member Supreme Court.

"I wish that we would get more diversity on the bench, no doubt about that. That's something that is welcome, that's something that is good for our society," he said.

"There is a growing awareness of the need for our courts, including our highest court, to reflect the diversity of Canadians. I certainly would welcome the insights and perspectives this could bring."

But Wagner declined to comment on whether there is entrenched racial discrimination in the justice system, saying judges speak through their rulings.

"I'm not reluctant. I'm only acting according to my duty," he said. "And my duty as a judge and a chief justice is to decide cases upon the evidence that is brought to us."

Diversity and fairness in the justice system have come to the fore around the world since the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by police in Minnesota. The death has prompted waves of protests and rallies as part of the Black Lives Matter movement, demanding changes to how authorities treat Black, Indigenous and racialized people.

Canada's justice system was already wrestling with case backlogs in the courts when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, closing courthouses and pausing many trials.

Wagner said some of the innovations that courts have embraced during the pandemic might become permanent.

The justice system was not prepared for a pandemic emergency and the courts were forced to look at different ways of working and accelerate steps towards modernization that were long overdue, he said.

The Supreme Court recently began holding hearings via videoconference to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The high court has long embraced technology by livestreaming proceedings on the court's website.

However, the new virtual hearings took place much like an online business meeting, with participants — including judges, lawyers and observers — connecting through the internet.

Wagner said the experiment, despite some expected glitches, was a "resounding success."

Many issues need to be discussed before making videoconferences a regular means of hearing cases, he cautioned. "It's an idea that is there for the future. I think it is there to stay, in one form or another."

He indicated going virtual would be harder for lower courts that hear more cases, have fewer resources and must accommodate witnesses, something the Supreme Court doesn't need to worry about when considering appeals.

"We need to ensure that all courts can continue to deliver justice to Canadians, which is our duty as the judiciary," Wagner said.

The challenges of jury trials and hearings in small and remote courtrooms are being examined by a committee on which Wagner serves with three other chief justices and Justice Minister David Lametti.

"We're also looking at the longer-term effects the pandemic will have on our justice system and how we can address those," Wagner said. "And we are taking the opportunity to start the conversation about long-standing issues that we can improve for the future."

At the very least, players in the justice system must ensure chronic delays do not get substantially worse, he said.

"And let me be clear: to do nothing would be irresponsible."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 18, 2020.

— Follow @JimBronskill on Twitter

Jim Bronskill , The Canadian Press