Annual News Conference with the Parliamentary Press Gallery

Remarks by the Right Honourable Richard Wagner, P.C.
Chief Justice of Canada

Good morning everyone. Thank you very much for joining me today and for your interest in the Supreme Court of Canada.

As always, I look forward to this opportunity to speak with you and answer your questions. It is always my goal to help you provide your readers, listeners and viewers with helpful information and context that may improve their access to justice or understanding of our justice system.

It has now been more than a year since the onslaught of this devastating public health crisis. A full year since we jumped into unplanned pilot projects that required new technologies, skills and priorities.

Indeed, the pandemic has proven to be a powerful agent of change. It has forced courts into the 21st century, just 21 years behind schedule! These new approaches tested long-held assumptions that once proved to be obstacles to modernization and reform. Such as how adopting new technologies would be too expensive; too insecure; or would insult the dignity and traditions of the courts. Embedded in this thinking was always the assumption that change would be a choice. Until it wasn’t.

In many ways the last year has been a blur – something I am sure you can all relate to. But I am pleased to tell you that the Court is running seamlessly with most employees continuing to work from home. We also have no backlog. The Court’s third annual Year in Review document provides an excellent summary of all the modifications made to the Court, and how we conducted safe in-person; hybrid; and virtual hearings.

The Supreme Court has decided that virtual hearings will continue, if parties want it that way. Overall, it has been a positive experience. I imagine that going forward, some clients would appreciate having the option to reduce the additional costs related to travel. Especially for criminal matters where those costs are borne by the public.

I also expect lawyers may appreciate less travel time to and from the Court. I understand Zoom hearings are permitting some counsel to work more efficiently and serve more clients at once because they have spent less time en route to and from courthouses.  

Even so, Canada cannot have a completely virtual justice system.

Poverty is a real issue in Canada. So is the absence of reliable Internet and phone service in some places; especially in Northern communities. I have heard that virtual hearings have led to a lack of formality and respect in the courtroom. Nova Scotia Supreme Court Justice Mona Lynch even told a House of Commons committee an anecdote from one of her colleagues. She said that during one virtual family court case, when one of the parties asked the Court to “hold on a minute”, they could hear the person order a double-double at Tim Hortons. Every matter that comes to a court is important – at least to one of the parties. While judges should have the ultimate discretion, most civilian witness testimony should be heard in-person where the solemnity and procedure of the courtroom truly highlights the seriousness of the matter being heard.

These are among the many issues and barriers that surfaced during the work of the Action Committee on Court Operations in response to Covid-19. This group I co-chair with Justice Minister Lametti, along with attorneys-general and public health officials has produced national guidance on how to deliver justice during a pandemic.

The committee has proven to be focused and effective. Its work has led to legislative proposals that would make the criminal justice system more efficient. They include:

  • Permitting accused persons to appear by video at preliminary hearings and trials
  • Audio appearances for pleas and sentencing hearings, when video is not available
  • The enhanced use of technology to draw names of jury candidates
  • And revising the tele-warrant process to help peace officers remotely apply for a wider range of investigative orders

I am very pleased that at our last meeting, we agreed to continue this work. Everyone on this committee is passionate about access to justice. We share many of the same goals and are working well together. This is good for Canada’s justice system.

Courts across the country are also embracing change. Many jurisdictions now permit parties to submit unsworn affidavits by email. This may sound trivial, but steps like these are clear signals that the justice system now has an appetite for modernization.  

Another element I would like to share is how, across Canada, our courts are more diverse than ever. According to the Commissioner for Federal Judicial Affairs, 45% of all federally-appointed judges are now women. There is also increased representation of judges who are Indigenous, racialized or identify as having a disability or are LGBTQ2. When judges reflect the makeup of society, this builds public confidence in the justice system. Judges also benefit when they share a wider variety of perspectives and lived experiences.

I would also like to make you aware that I welcome the government’s bill to reform the judicial discipline process. The Canadian Judicial Council is currently reviewing the proposed legislation. But my overall first impression is that these reforms would bring more transparency and efficiency to how judges are disciplined.

And after 23 years, the CJC has also updated its Ethical Principles for Judges. The new version, released last week, reflects the scope of judges’ work today. Such as the exponential growth in self-represented litigants, social media and makes clear the expectation that judges possess a high degree of cultural competence.

Before we get to your questions, I imagine some of you may have questions about my responsibilities as Administrator of the Government of Canada. This is a good opportunity to inform you and Canadians about my legal duty to take on this role and what I have done over the last five months.

The federal government did not ask for my help by chance. It’s spelled out in the law.  When a Governor General is incapacitated or resigns, the Letters Patent of the office state that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court assumes the role of Administrator of Canada.

Since January 23rd, I have given Royal Assent to 12 bills and signed 557 Orders in Council. I officially welcomed Ambassadors and High Commissioners to Canada and signed letters of accreditation for Canada’s heads of mission. I was also honoured to preside over virtual ceremonies for Canadian honours such as the Order of Canada, Meritorious Service Decorations and Sovereign’s Medals for volunteers.

I am proud of having fulfilled this unique Constitutional duty, even during those very busy weeks when the Court was in session.

Looking forward, to September 2022, the Supreme Court will hear two more cases outside of Ottawa – this time in Quebec City! Just as we did in 2019 when we traveled to Winnipeg, the members of the Court will also engage with people in the community. These opportunities are valuable to helping the public understand the work of the Supreme Court, as well as its role in Canada’s healthy, strong democracy.

Thank you. I am ready for your questions.

 

Remarks by the Right Honourable Richard Wagner, P.C.
Chief Justice of Canada
On the occasion of the Annual News Conference with the Parliamentary Press Gallery
Ottawa, Ontario
June 17, 2021