The federal minister spoke with Legal Feeds this morning, elaborating on some of the themes that arose yesterday afternoon when he spoke at the Canadian Bar Association’s annual conference in Saskatoon.
In a question and answer session yesterday, he said the government would consider whether greater transparency around judicial appointments would encourage more diversity.
But he added: “I think the more pressing issue is answering the disparity and appointing more female judges, if I can be so frank.”
He said he knew of “a number of cases” where the pool of applicants suggested by judicial advisory committees included insufficient numbers of women.
“The first course of action would be to “ensure we have fully functioning JACs that include women, that have a greater gender balance. That, I think, will help facilitate some of the disparity,” he said.
He told Legal Feeds encouraging women and people from ethnic minorities to become superior court judges was a “very important objective,” to ensure the bench is drawing from the strongest possible pool of candidates and is a “reflection of the changing face of Canada.”
Asked about the role law firms could play, he said: “I think women and ethnic minorities benefit from mentoring and, like many professions, it’s [down to] the goodwill and desire of people working in the system to assist and encourage female candidates and those who have, in some cases, had to overcome barriers.”
However, he added: “The over-riding consideration is and will remain making potential appointments on merit.”
MacKay also said he wanted to reduce the number of civil cases in which the government is “in conflict with the people of Canada.”
“There’s a lot of value added in trying to lessen that number and trying to settle some of these cases out of court, through arbitration,” he said.
He was non-committal on the question of whether the federal government could play a bigger role in collecting data and setting national benchmarks for areas such as legal aid coverage — a recommendation in the CBA’s report on access to justice, published on Monday.
He said: “Those sort of statistics always help, but I’m loathe to direct, to suggest, that the provinces have to do a better job. It’s one of those jurisdiction areas where they have to make those decisions about priorities, and they’re best placed to do it.”
During his speech yesterday, he said he had not fully read the report, but would be formulating a response.
He also outlined four priority areas, including:
- Creating a bill of rights for victims;
- Tackling cyber bullying;
- Taking a tougher stance on impaired driving; and
- Addressing concerns regarding accused persons found not criminally responsible.
He said he had spent the past month travelling around the country and meeting people to discuss a variety of legal issues.
Regarding a proposed bill of rights for victims, he said: “It’s fair to say that many have recognized that significant improvements have been made. But I’ve heard many victims who still feel the system’s failing and they don’t feel that it is thus far meeting their needs, they want the system reformed to include them in a more substantial way.”
He said his desire to address impaired driving was partly informed by his experience as a Crown attorney.
“Impaired driving has serious consequences and I want to make sure that any legislation we introduce will send a strong message of society’s abhorrence of this crime,” he said.
Yesterday’s speech was followed by a question and answer session with delegates.
Former CBA president Simon Potter asked MacKay whether he had given consideration to the “growing lack of respect for the judicial branch, coming from the legislative and executive branches.”
Potter said: “Many commentators have looked at what has been coming from Ottawa in the past years and we’ve seen a trend towards, not just minimum sentences, but other things as well that seem to tell our judges that, well, ‘you’re not there really to judge, you’re there simply to do.’”
MacKay responded: “It’s certainly something I’ve reflected on . . . judicial independence is one of the most important underpinnings of our system. Having said that, and I say that with the greatest respect, I think it’s a bit of an over-dramatization to suggest that this has been a trend, or that this has happened in any way that’s disproportionate.”
Mandatory minimum sentences have been around as long as the Criminal Code, he said.
He added: “I think it’s fair to say that the legislative branch owes a duty to respond to public outcry and expressions from the public for example of a trend in low sentences for serious violent offences.”
He would make “no apologies” for the government acting on its “prerogative” to act on concerns by members of the public, he said.