Queen’s Law hosted Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Beverley McLachlin in Wallace Hall on Nov. 20 as part of the ongoing Principal’s Forum Speaker Series.
The Principal’s Forum is a public lecture series that has been taking place on Queen’s campus since 2012. The series allows the principal to invite distinguished visitors to campus to speak on issues of interest to the Queen’s community.
McLachlin was joined by Queen’s School of Law Dean Bill Flanagan. During her talk, she commented on diversity in law, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) and the appointment process of a new judge.
Following 28 years of service on the Supreme Court of Canada bench, McLachlin will retire from her post as Chief Justice on Dec. 15. She is the first woman to hold the position and is also the longest serving Chief Justice in Canadian history.
With the SCC being the highest court in Canada, it typically sets precedent throughout the country and lower courts. During her time on the bench, McLachlin has had a strong impact on Canadian constitutional law, declaring laws prohibiting assisted dying and prostitution as unconstitutional.
Flanagan began the event by directing conversation towards gender representation on the bench. Currently, the Supreme Court has four women and five men.
“The home-child front still discourages some women who find themselves with children and family, and an inability, or they don’t wish to, give those children to other people to raise,” McLachlin said. “I wouldn’t personally like to see a nine-woman court or a nine-man court. I think that each gender brings its own perspectives.”
When asked whether sexual harassment is a continuing issue within the legal field, McLachlin said she “sincerely believes that it is no longer a factor in the practice of law.”
“I’m hoping that the law is an area where this has been more or less banished, and women are truly viewed as equals. So that’s less and less a barrier, and I’m very happy with that,” she continued.
A topic within the legal field that was also discussed was intervenors. Intervenors are prominent figures during litigation, who present themselves as a third party with an interest in the case at hand.
“Intervenors are not there to argue the merits, they could have an impact. I think the system works pretty well,” she said. “Most intervenors present a useful view.”
McLachlin added she doesn’t believe the utilization of intervenors will change and the system continues to benefit from them.
Flanagan also asked about doctrinal purity, wondering whether it’s sacrificed sometimes for a case win. McLachlin responded simply, “You do not dilute your principles.”
As a Justice on the Supreme Court, McLachlin added it’s important for the bench not to diverge too much on major issues. “You might agree to a way of stating a conclusion that you think you could state much better, but you try to agree on that,” she said.
As retirement nears, questions about a new SCC judge were directed towards the justice. “What I think Canadians are wanting is a little more transparency,” she said. “For a couple years now we’ve been trying to look for other models. On the constitution, it looks like it’s pure government appointment but there are appointing committees. Government’s need help selecting the right candidate.”
She didn’t offer any more information to the tightly-packed audience in Wallace Hall, but did say Canadians can be “assured that the people appointed have been vetted.”
On the topic of Indigenous law, Dean Flanagan noted, “some people think Aboriginal law is not relevant to the future careers of Canadian law students.”
McLachlin responded, “good lawyers have to understand their country. It’s very important.”
For her, the legal system’s growth surrounding Indigenous traditions is an important indicator of the increasing importance of Aboriginal peoples within the law. She mentioned sentencing in circles and Gladue provisions that account for Aboriginal background as recent implementations within the court.
“These changes are a really good thing and I’m really happy people are talking about it, and it’ll be something for the future to [see] how we can work out a system to reflect Indigenous traditions in the overall framework of the legal structure of the country,” she said.
McLachlin ended her visit by speaking directly to law students and prospective lawyers in the room.
“I had no idea when I was studying law how many opportunities to contribute to society the law presents. A law degree, an understanding of how the law works, and the ability to think as a lawyer and analyze like a lawyer and advocate as a lawyer, these skills are so empowering,” she said.
“I’ve been enormously privileged in my lifetime to have had a career in the law at a time where the law was active and developing and changing and keeping on the problems of society in a serious way. To have been a small part of that has been an enormous privilege. One I would never dream I would’ve had studying law.”
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