OTTAWA – Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould appointed or promoted 24 judges Thursday as she unveiled sweeping changes to the way jurists in this country are appointed.
“We’re confident that it is going to result in (a) diversity of candidates putting their name forward,” Wilson-Raybould said of the overhauled appointment process, which had become a source of controversy in recent years.
The Liberal government had been under increasing pressure – including from Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin this summer – to fill empty seats on federal benches, a backlog that had climbed to 61 vacancies.
The situation in Alberta was becoming especially dire. Court of Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Neil Wittman repeatedly warned that vacancies were causing trial delays, with wait times for criminal cases of more than a year – more than two years in civil matters.
In Edmonton earlier this month, the case of a man charged with murder in a prison stabbing was tossed out because it took more than five years for the trial to start – a violation of his right to have his case heard within a reasonable time.
The new appointments include five to Alberta’s Court of Queen’s Bench, which is also losing two of its existing judges to the province’s Court of Appeal.
Six appointments are in Ontario – including one promotion from Superior Court to the Ontario Court of Appeal – as well as three each in British Columbia, Manitoba and Nova Scotia, one in Quebec and one to the Tax Court of Canada.
The appointments will address “the urgent needs that we’ve heard from the chief justices in the respective provinces and territories, so that is going to assist with respect to having more resources in terms of judges on the bench,” Wilson-Raybould said.
“I had the opportunity to speak with my provincial and territorial counterparts to recognize that there are many factors that lead to delay in the criminal justice system and we are all committed to collaboratively working towards identifying those and addressing them.”
The appointments also include 14 women and two who self-identify as indigenous, Wilson-Raybould said, with increased diversity being a goal going forward.
The new Superior Courts appointments process will incorporate some elements of the new way of creating a shortlist of candidates to the Supreme Court of Canada.
That process, which includes requiring candidates to fill out a lengthy questionnaire, culminated earlier this week in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau nominating Justice Malcolm Rowe of St. John’s, N.L. – the first Newfoundlander ever named to the high court.
“We learned from the development of that process, recognize that we want to have a bench that reflects the diversity of Canada,” she said.
The government is also disbanding the current judicial advisory committees that screen potential candidates for federally appointed judicial positions.
They will form new ones with seven members, no longer requiring one of them to be a representative from the law enforcement community and allowing judges on the committees to vote, which reverses changes the Conservatives had brought in.
The committees themselves will also be created with an eye to diversity.