Annual News Conference with the Chief Justice of Canada

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

(Check against delivery)

Good morning, and thank you for coming. I am pleased to update you this morning on the work of the Supreme Court of Canada, and my responsibilities as Chief Justice of Canada. I always look forward to this opportunity to speak to the media.

It has been another noteworthy year for the Supreme Court. We heard cases on a wide range of issues, from Indigenous rights, to contract law, to Charter rights, and more.

For me, one of the highlights was welcoming a new colleague to the Court, the Honourable Mary T. Moreau. Justice Moreau brings with her a wealth of experience and valuable knowledge, having served for more than 30 years as both a trial judge and as a Chief Justice. Throughout her long career, Justice Moreau has been extensively involved in judicial education, administration and ethics, both in Canada and internationally. My colleagues and I are very happy that she has joined us.

With her appointment, the Supreme Court of Canada has a majority of women judges for the first time in its history.

Those of you who cover the Court regularly may have noticed a few changes, all in the interest of access to justice. The Courtroom is back to full capacity. It is so nice to see the public attending our hearings. It enables them to see how we work. It has also been great to see media attending our hearings, participating in lockups and in briefings. You can do so online or in person.

We found that hybrid hearings worked quite well, so we have continued this practice. Counsel for the parties always have the option to appear in person or online, while interveners must present their views by videoconference. Virtual appearances are efficient and cost-effective for all parties.

Some amendments to the Rules of the Supreme Court of Canada came into force this morning. I want to point out two important changes: First, filing fees have been eliminated. While nominal, the fees added an additional burden for all litigants, particularly those who are self-represented. Eliminating them removes one more barrier to justice.

Secondly, the new rules require using the Court’s e-filing portal launched in January 2023. Since its inception, the portal has been a tremendous success. We receive more than 1,000 documents every month through the portal, safely and securely, reducing the administrative burden on parties and on our staff. This is just one example of how we are modernizing. Technology offers great potential to streamline administration and improve access to justice. I salute all those working at courts across the country to identify new solutions.

I want to take a few moments to update you on the work of the Canadian Judicial Council.  I chair the CJC, which is the national body that brings together the 44 Chief Justices and Associate Chief Justices.

The CJC has experienced a significant turnover in its membership in recent years, which has allowed us to benefit from new perspectives and new ideas. We are counting on an excellent collaboration, and I am convinced that the CJC is well positioned to continue exercising leadership in the administration of justice.

The CJC is working forward on a number of important fronts, such as artificial intelligence. Our members are paying close attention to its potential effects on justice and the courts. The CJC continues to engage with experts in the field, and we are working on developing helpful guidance for the courts.

The CJC is also mindful of the health and well‑being of judges. We will therefore be conducting a study on this subject in the very near future. This will allow us to better understand the challenges faced by members of the judiciary, and identify ways we can assist them further. This is important, since health and well-being is a matter for everyone, including judges.

At my press conference last year, I said the judicial conduct regime needed to change. I was very happy to see that soon after, Bill C-9 was finally adopted. The process for reviewing and sanctioning judicial conduct was amended. This was something me and my fellow council members had been calling for, over many years.

Since then, the CJC published new Review Procedures and a new Policy on the Publication of Judicial Conduct Decisions. These developments will promote procedural fairness and provide greater clarity and transparency, while building public trust in our judiciary.

Last year, I also spoke to you about judicial vacancies. This remains a key priority for the Council, and as its chair, I have expressed our concerns to the highest levels of government. I am pleased to see that the number of judicial vacancies has gone down in recent months and I am confident that the government will continue to make efforts to appoint judges in a timely fashion.

Let me share an update on the work of another organization that I chair – the National Judicial Institute.

The NJI has developed continuing education for Canadian judges for over 35 years. Last year, the NJI provided more than 70 national judicial education seminars. The NJI has also embraced digital education, developing a growing library of on-demand resources, available to judges of all courts.

Educational seminars and resources addressed critical topics for Canadian judges, such as sexual assault law, intimate partner violence, justice issues relevant to Indigenous peoples, and the impacts of artificial intelligence on the justice system. The NJI also increased educational programming designed specifically to meet the needs of French-speaking judges across Canada.

The NJI is increasingly solicited by other countries for its expertise in judicial education, and it continues to collaborate with them on capacity building, and judicial reform. A few of those countries include: Ukraine, Vietnam, Singapore, and most recently, Pakistan.

I want to now turn to the work of the Action Committee on Modernizing Court Operations, which I co-chair with the federal Minister of Justice. The Action Committee brings members of the executive and the judiciary together around the same table. It allows chief justices, attorneys general, and court administrators to address challenges from a big picture perspective.

Our legal system is facing several key questions:

    How do we ensure that it is meeting the needs of marginalized Canadians?

    How do we ensure adequate funding and resources?

    How can technology and collaboration improve access to justice?

    And how do we continue to protect the health and safety of litigants and staff going forward?

The Action Committee has been working to identify best practices and solutions that can help address some of these questions. For instance, we shared a case study showing how family courts in Manitoba tackle backlogs and delays. We developed a roadmap for piloting virtual bail hearings, based on the experience in B.C. We also published a set of best practices for mental health and wellness. I look forward to continuing to build on that progress.

Our court system must function efficiently and effectively, because Canadians rely on it every single day. Courts must have the resources to function effectively. From staffing to infrastructure, our courts need resources to ensure that justice continues to be served.

Governments at all levels must understand that funding for justice initiatives is required to sustain our democracy.

I have said this before, and I will say it again today: public confidence in our courts is essential to maintaining the rule of law and a strong democracy. The Supreme Court of Canada, like all courts across the country in fact, enjoys a great deal of public confidence.

But the judicial system is not immune to problems. In fact, today we are seeing attacks on our judges and our institutions, something we used to only see in other countries.

One of the ongoing challenges is countering disinformation. I would like to say a few words about this. First of all, this challenge is more prevalent than ever, in the era of social media and polarization seen within society, and especially south of the border. People are finding it increasingly difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. And this causes some people, otherwise of good faith, to lose trust in their institutions.

Of course, in a democracy, we accept and even hope that court decisions will be the subject of debate. But it is important for the debates to be respectful and above all, informed. People should at least read judgments before criticizing them.

We can see all kinds of harm caused when court decisions are reported inaccurately, or out of context, for reasons of “sensationalism”.

It is also troubling when the judge is more scrutinized than the judgment itself. It is one thing to express disagreement with a decision, but it is another thing altogether to criticize it because of who the judge is or how they were appointed. Comments like this undermine public confidence in the justice system. We should be especially concerned when elected representatives say these things.

A judiciary that is independent and impartial — and perceived as such — is the pillar of our democracy. At times, it may be useful — even indispensable — for members of society as a whole to come together to denounce and condemn comments of this nature, to correct disinformation and set the record straight. Make no mistake: if we become complacent, we should not be surprised to see the very foundations of the rule of law and our democracy erode.

That is why we need you – the media – more than ever before. These narratives undermine democracies, but quality journalism strengthens trust in our institutions. I emphasized this at a recent conference in Quebec, the Festival international de journalisme de Carleton-sur-Mer. Your work is vital in making our institutions more visible and more accessible. That matters a great deal these days, when there is a lot of wrong and inaccurate information out there.

That is precisely why the Court goes to great lengths to explain our work. Because the public cannot have faith in something it does not understand. If you read our Cases in Brief – and I know many of you do – you will have noticed that we now issue them for oral judgments, in addition to written judgments. This adds to a long list of initiatives put in place in recent years to improve the transparency and accessibility of court hearings and decisions.

I often speak about communication and outreach with the international judicial community. Last month in Brazil, I was the first Canadian Chief Justice to participate in a J20 Summit. The J20 brought together the heads of supreme and constitutional courts of the G20 members, as well as the African Union and the European Union. I was pleased to lead a discussion on access to justice and how courts can better reflect the changing nature of society. This was a great opportunity to share the Canadian experience, as our country is a leader in tackling these issues. I also heard from my counterparts and learned how they are confronting other challenges, like AI and disinformation.

Engaging in this kind of dialogue with other courts around the world is a valuable experience for me and my colleagues. Over the past year, we welcomed delegations from the Supreme Court of the United States and the Constitutional Court of Slovenia for judicial exchanges. We also had our first exchange with the Constitutional Court of South Africa. And we welcomed many other international visitors to the Court – including from countries like Japan, Pakistan, Lithuania, Italy, and Vietnam.

These meetings are unique opportunities to discuss subjects like judicial independence or access to justice and to learn more about how other courts around the world deal with today’s challenges.

My colleagues and I have also, again this year, participated in many meetings with members of the legal community and members of the public across Canada. These meetings are important in creating a better understanding of the Court’s role, but also in getting to know more about the concerns of different stakeholders. They also allow us to learn about many inspiring initiatives.

There is a lot ahead for us this year. We have several initiatives planned to commemorate our 150th anniversary in 2025. I am really looking forward to our regional visits. Members of the Court will go to five different cities during the year. We will meet with students, the general public, the media, and the legal community and tell them about the work of our Court. We will also host a symposium for the legal community, and launch a more modern and accessible website. So, stay tuned!

For now, let me close by saying thank you again for being so interested in the Court and our justice system. I would be happy to answer some of 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
Sir John A. Macdonald Building
Ottawa, Ontario
June 3, 2024