Beverley McLachlin calls on Ottawa to solve 'perpetual crisis' of judicial vacancies

Canada's Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin is calling on the federal government to solve the "perpetual crisis" with the current selection process for hiring judges.

'Something deeply wrong' with current selection process for appointing judges, chief justice says

Canada's Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin says long delays in appointing judges is having a 'detrimental' effect on Canadians waiting to have their cases heard. (CBC)

Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin had frank words for federal officials during a speech at a legal conference in Ottawa Thursday, urging the Liberal government to solve the "perpetual crisis" with the current selection process for hiring judges.

There are currently 44 empty seats on Federal Court benches across the country and one vacancy on the Supreme Court of Canada.

"This is not the first time that I have come before you to call upon the government of the day to meet its obligation to appoint judges in a timely fashion. There is something deeply wrong with the hiring scheme that repeatedly proves itself incapable of foreseeing, preparing for and filling vacancies as they arise," McLachlin said in her remarks at the Canadian Bar Association's conference. 

"The perpetual crisis of judicial vacancies in Canada is an avoidable problem that needs to be tackled and solved."

Chief Justice says court vacancies are unacceptable

7 years ago
Duration 1:20
Beverley McLachlin spoke to the Canadian Bar Association today in Ottawa

McLachlin also called on the federal government to fill a vacancy on Canada's top court as soon as possible.

The vacancy came after Justice Thomas Cromwell, the only Nova Scotian currently sitting on the Supreme Court of Canada, announced in March that he will be retiring on Sept. 1.

"I would be less than frank if I did not say that I am concerned about the length of time it has taken to fill this vacancy," said McLachlin.

"I remain hopeful that we will be able to welcome Justice Cromwell's replacement, if not in time for the October sitting, at the earliest possible date this fall."

McLachlin said long delays in appointing judges have "detrimental effects" on Canadians waiting to have their cases heard.

"What I'm calling for in the most positive way is that we start a dialogue with the Justice Department to see how we can remedy what has been an ongoing problem under many, many regimes, many different governments, which has become almost a systemic feature of our judicial appointment process," McLachlin said after her speech.

"I want to sit down with the Department of Justice and say how do we fix this problem."

Federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould defends the Liberal government's new process for appointing Supreme Court judges during a Commons committee meeting in Ottawa on Thursday. (CBC)

Her comments come a week after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a new selection process for Supreme Court justices.

"I hope that the process will function expeditiously, fairly and that the position will be filled in the very near future," McLachlin said.

While the new rules include opening the process so any qualified Canadian lawyer or judge who is functionally bilingual and "representative of the diversity of our great country" can apply, the changes could leave Atlantic Canada without a jurist on the top court.

Atlantic representation on top court?

Canada's Attorney General and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould appeared Thursday afternoon before a parliamentary committee tasked with studying the government's new process for nominating Supreme Court justices.

Wilson-Raybould acknowledged the importance of regional representation though she could not guarantee that the next appointment to the top court would be from Atlantic Canada.

"The prime minister has specifically asked the advisory board to provide a list of three to five qualified and functionally bilingual candidates, that includes candidates from Atlantic Canada," Wilson-Raybould said.

Conservative MP and former justice minister Rob Nicholson, who is a member of the Commons justice committee, said appointing a judge from another region of the country would be "a mistake." 

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, who filled in for committee vice-chair Murray Rankin, was critical of the "unilateral" but "substantive" changes announced by the Liberal government.

"This has already been decided in a vacuum by a small group of people and the conclusions, as far as I'm concerned and from what I heard, are pre-ordained," Mulcair said.

The Canadian Bar Association urged Trudeau in an open letter on Wednesday to honour regional representation when filling vacancies on Canada's highest court.

McLachlin also called on the Liberal government to restore funding to the Canadian Judicial Council, which saw its budget cut in 2014 under the previous Conservative government.

Wilson-Raybould will speak at the bar association's conference in Ottawa on Friday.