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The Chief Justice speaks out on judicial independence

Richard Wagner addressed concerns about threats to the rule of law at the CBA's annual general meeting.

Chief Justice Richard Wagner
The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, Richard Wagner addresses the CBA's AGM Blair Gable

The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada called on the legal community to advocate for judicial independence as a pillar of a democratic society, serving a reminder that judges are not as free to speak up about it.

“While the scales of justice may tip to one side or another, the scales of democracy must not,” Chief Justice Richard Wagner said in his remarks to the annual general meeting of the CBA on Wednesday, February 19. “As members of the bar and engaged citizens, you have a role in maintaining this balance.”

“And do not underestimate that role: your involvement in the public discourse, as individual lawyers and through the voice of the Canadian Bar Association, is necessary to support the judiciary and ensure judicial independence. You speak where we cannot.”

The Chief Justice reminded his audience that judicial independence may be straightforward in theory. But it has come “under threat” in many parts of the world at a time of diminishing trust and faith in institutions.

"We live in troubled times," he said. "The rule of law and judicial independence are under threat around the world. Just look at what is heppening South of our border."

“Once judicial independence begins to erode, even just a little, the danger is that the whole edifice may eventually crumble.”

The Chief Justice also stressed that judicial independence is not meant to benefit judges individually. The benefits accrue to Canadians, “who can trust in their justice system because they have confidence that judges are deciding the cases that affect them independently and impartially.”

He cited the Accord to strengthen the independence of the Supreme Court of Canada, which Justice Wagner signed with Minister of Justice and Attorney General David Lametti last summer, as a framework for how the Supreme Court and the Minister of Justice interact. It is intended to set out guidelines that ensure the court’s independence from government influence, especially when the government is found arguing frequently before the court.

“I can say emphatically that there has never been a time when we on the bench felt inappropriate pressure from another branch of government to make a particular decision," Chief Justice Wagner said. "Nonetheless, our democracy demands that we avoid even the perception that this is possible.”