Canada’s top judge says the judiciary must be free to decide what training and education judges need to do their jobs well.
Richard Wagner, chief justice of the Supreme Court, made the comments Wednesday in a speech to the Canadian Bar Association — just two weeks after the Trudeau government introduced legislation that would require new judges to commit to training in sexual-assault law before taking seats on the bench.
Bill C-5 revives a private member’s bill introduced several years ago by former interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose, which stalled in the Senate and died when Parliament dissolved for last fall’s election.
However, the new bill incorporates modifications proposed by senators to quell concerns that mandatory training for judges would impinge on judicial independence.
It was not clear whether Wagner’s reference to training in a speech devoted to the importance of maintaining judicial independence was intended as veiled criticism of the bill. He took no questions following his remarks.
“Judges have to be free to make the right decision, even when that decision may be politically unpopular,” he said. “The judiciary, as a collective, has to be free to decide what training and education judges receive to do their jobs well.”
The bill requires that judges take training in sexual-assault law but leaves it to the Canadian Judicial Council, which Wagner chairs, to develop the actual training program, in consultation with whomever it chooses, including survivors of sexual assault.
In a statement issued when Bill C-5 was introduced, the council expressed some reservations about the legislation.
“We know that sexual violence complainants, in particular, can find the judicial process confusing and even traumatic,” the council said.
“The federal government has introduced a bill aimed at strengthening the confidence of sexual assault survivors in the justice system. This is a laudable goal and one with which the judiciary wholeheartedly agrees.”
Still, it noted that the council and the National Judicial Institute already provide training and that “this work is properly and exclusively the judiciary’s role.”
Moreover, that statement pointed out that the council and institute develop training programs only for judges appointed by the federal government and are not responsible for the provincial and territorial judges who conduct many of the sexual assault trials in this country.
“Any solution that does not include provincially and territorially appointed judges is incomplete and falls short of the goal.”
In his speech, Wagner argued that judicial independence is crucial to maintaining the balance among the executive, legislative and judicial branches of a democracy.
The executive branch sets policy, the legislative branch passes laws and the judiciary interprets those laws and must be free to do so “without any outside influence” so that Canadians can have confidence that cases are decided independently and impartially, he said.
He warned that “even actions that are taken with the best of intentions” can disrupt that delicate balance and “once judicial independence begins to erode, even just a little, the danger is that the whole edifice may eventually crumble.”
And he pointed to the United States as an example of a country where that erosion has occurred.
“We live in troubled times. The rule of law and judicial independence are under threat around the world. Just look at what’s happening south of the border.”
Wagner didn’t elaborate.
Judicial appointments are far more politicized in the U.S.
Washington is currently in an uproar over Attorney General William Barr overriding trial prosecutors to recommend a lighter prison sentence for Roger Stone, a longtime friend of President Donald Trump. The president also just pardoned or commuted the sentences of several high-profile people convicted of frauds and corruption.