McLachlin defends judiciary in sexual assault cases as she retires as chief justice

Outgoing chief justice Beverley McLachlin says most judges handle sexual assault complainants with sensitivity, and said Canadians should not judge the system as a whole based on the inappropriate actions of a few.

Retiring chief justice says it would be a 'terrible mistake' to think all judges are insensitive

Outgoing Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada Beverley McLachlin listens to a question during a final news conference in Ottawa today. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Outgoing Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin says most judges handle sexual assault complainants with sensitivity, and said Canadians should not condemn the system as a whole based on the inappropriate actions of a few.

McLachlin, who retires from Canada's highest court today after 28 years on the bench, including 17 years as chief justice, called for more public dialogue around sexual assault to "bridge the divide." In a final news conference in Ottawa today, she defended the role of judges and how they handle the majority of cases.

"Sadly, there's been the odd case that has shown some regrettable problems," she said. "But we should remember that thousands of sexual assault trials are held in Canada every year, and if there's one that goes wrong, we should not judge the whole system by that."

McLachlin said she stands by the message she sent in controversial comments she made in October on sexual assault trials.

During an acceptance speech for a lifetime achievement award from the Criminal Lawyers' Association, she stressed the need to better understand the needs of complainants, but said that must be balanced with the need to ensure fair trials and prevent wrongful convictions.

"No one has the right to a particular verdict but only to a fair trial on the evidence," she said at the time.

McLachlin's comments came during heightened public debate around sexual assault and harassment, and outrage in Canada over high-profile cases of judges taken to task for how they spoke to, or about, complainants in sexual assault cases.

Majority of judges sensitive

In an interview with CBC News this week, McLachlin said the vast majority of judges are well-trained and sensitive to sexual assault complainants, yet there is the occasional judge who is "influenced by stereotypes and myths of the past." 

"There is only one or two cases to lead the public to think that all the judges are like that. That would be a terrible mistake," she told The National's co-host Rosemary Barton. "That is not the way the justice system is operating. But one such case is one too many, and it has to be dealt with."

McLachlin on sexual assault cases

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Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin comments on the state of sexual assault cases in Canada's judicial system 0:41

McLachlin said the Judicial Council, which oversees the actions of judges, has been dealing with those cases "very properly and very severely." 

At her farewell news conference, McLachlin cited her role in the national project of reconciliation with Indigenous people as one of the most proud and important accomplishments of her tenure as the Supreme Court of Canada's chief justice.

Reconciliation efforts

McLachlin, who has described the residential schools system "an attempt at cultural genocide," said the country is now fully engaged in a reconciliation project and that she feels "great satisfaction" in having played a role in it.

"There was a policy of undermining, in the late 19th and early 20th century, Indigenous cultures. Well motivated, but we now view that as wrong," she said. "We know that, and we are now embarked on a process of looking at our history and learning from it."

McLachlin on reconicliation

4 years ago
Duration 1:03
Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin reflects on the Supreme Court of Canada's role in reconciliation between First Nations and Canada. 1:03

McLachlin also repeated her concerns about a lack of access to justice in Canada, and said the financial and administrative hurdles must be overcome to ensure all Canadians can get timely justice in criminal, civil and family courts.

She also spoke about what she sees as a decline in human rights around the world, and the diminished role of the judiciary in some countries.

"What can we do about it? We can hope it won't happen in Canada," she said. "I suppose there can be subtle erosions anywhere. We have some wonderful constitutional safeguards in our Constitution which creates an independent judiciary.... We have deep respect for our Charter of Rights and Freedoms among the people of Canada, and we have a public that values an independent judiciary."

McLachlin was feted at a farewell gala dinner in Ottawa Thursday evening, where several dignitaries and politicians, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, former prime minister Brian Mulroney and former governor general Adrienne Clarkson, paid tribute.

Quebec jurist Richard Wagner will succeed McLachlin as chief justice. He will be sworn in on Monday.

At age 60, Wagner is the senior Quebec judge on the bench. He was nominated to the high court in 2012 by former prime minister Stephen Harper.

Before his judicial appointment, he had a commercial litigation practice focusing on real estate and professional liability insurance. Wagner is the middle son of former Quebec provincial Liberal cabinet minister and one-time federal Progressive Conservative leadership candidate Claude Wagner.