So you want to be a judge

How do you become a judge in Canada? In this article, we’ll discuss the process, go over important points, and recount sage advice from four well-respected judges

So you want to be a judge
How do you become a judge in Canada? And what are the steps to be one?

Updated 30 April 2024

Lawyers – or even the public – may ask “how do you become a judge?” or “what are the qualifications to become one?”

In this article, we’ll highlight the insights of four women judges who spoke during a panel about transitioning to the bench. Their insights and experiences are invaluable, especially to those who aspire to become judges.

How do you become a judge in Canada?

There are two important points to know when learning how to become a judge in Canada: the qualifications set by law, and the process set by the appointing authorities.

Although these qualifications and procedures may vary depending on the level of the court being applied for, there are also similarities among them.

Qualifications when applying to become a judge

Qualifications to become a judge are set by provincial and federal laws.

The appointment of judges in a superior court in any province is governed by the federal Judges Act. It outlines the following qualifications:

  • the candidate should be a member of good standing of a bar of any province or territory for at least 10 years, or for an aggregate of at least 10 years
  • after becoming a member of the bar, the candidate shall have exercised powers and performed duties of a judicial nature on a full-time basis on a position held under a Canadian, provincial, or territorial law

In addition, applicants must pursue continuing education on the following matters:

  • sexual assault law
  • intimate partner violence
  • systemic racism and discrimination
  • other seminars prescribed by the Canadian Judicial Council

Appointment of judges in provincial or territorial courts also follow similar qualifications, as provided by their respective provincial or territorial laws.

How to become a judge in Ontario

For instance, appointment of provincial judges in Ontario is defined by its Courts of Justice Act, which also provides similar qualifications. Additional qualifications and procedures may also be required by the provincial recommendatory body which initially screens candidates for the position.

How to become a judge in British Columbia

Aside from the above-mentioned qualifications, BC provides additional criteria for the appointment of provincial court judges:

  • superb legal reputation and professional record review from the Law Society of BC
  • experience in mediation or alternative dispute resolution
  • respect in the legal community
  • good health
  • appreciation of and experience with diversity
  • willingness to travel and to sit in all subject areas

What is the process of applying for a judicial position in Canada?

Applying to become a judge will differ when applying to a superior court vs a provincial or territorial court.

Process of appointing judges in superior courts

Applicants who want to become a judge of a provincial or territorial superior court may apply to the Commissioner for Federal Judicial Affairs. This includes applicants for judicial positions in the Federal Court of Appeal, the Federal Court, and the Tax Court of Canada.

Applicants must complete the following forms and submit them to the Judicial Appointments’ Executive Director:

  • questionnaire: contains the basic data for the subsequent assessment and comment by the appropriate Judicial Advisory Committee (JAC)
  • authorization form: to allow the Executive Director to obtain a statement of the applicant’s current and past standing with the Law Society they are a member of
  • background check consent form: to allow background checks after the Minister of Justice’s nomination, once the JAC has completed its assessment and has recommended the applicant

After reviewing the applicant’s qualifications, the Executive Director of the Judicial Appointments will forward their files to the appropriate committee for assessment.

The Law Society’s report regarding the applicant’s current and past standing will also be included in these files.

Process of appointing provincial judges

As for applications to become a judge in a provincial or territorial court of justice, it will be governed by the rules set by their own provincial or territorial laws.

The judicial committees in each province will screen the applicants and submit their recommendations to the Attorney General. In Ontario, it is the Judicial Appointments Advisory Committee; in BC, it is the Judicial Council of BC. Other provinces and territories would have similar committees or councils.

It is then the Attorney General who will choose one candidate to be recommended to the Lieutenant Governor in Council for appointment to fill the judicial vacancy.

Watch this video to know more on the process in appointing judges:

Check out this directory of the best lawyers in Canada per practice area as ranked by Lexpert. One of them could become a judge someday!

What are some tips on applying to become a judge?

Aside from the technical qualifications and processes when applying to become a judge, there are also some practical tips that you can only hear from experienced judges.

In 2017, Justices Kathryn Feldman, Susan Lang (retired), Sandra Bacchus, and Kimberley Ann Crosbie spoke at the Women’s Transformative Leadership Forum in Toronto. They shared some insights during the forum’s “In August Company: Advancing Women’s Leadership on the Bench” panel. Their words ring true today as they did then.

Here’s what they said on becoming a judge in Canada:

Perfect age to apply

Justice Susan Lang, now retired from the Court of Appeal for Ontario, gave some insights on the right age to consider when applying to the bench. She also shared tips to ensure that one’s application gets noticed.

Lang said that it had less to do with a specific age and more to do with where you are in your career and what you’ve accomplished.

Lang, originally from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, was appointed to the Court of Appeal from 2004 to 2013. She was a judge of Superior Court from 1989 to 2004 and a Toronto Regional senior judge from 1996 to 1999.

“We used to be appointed pretty young, as women,” said Lang. “I think because they were looking to appoint women, but it was said that age 50 was the time to go to the bench, with the idea you’d be there 15 years.”

“Now, we all live forever, so you can be there for about 25 years. I think some people are 41 when they apply and don’t have the accomplishments they need yet.”

Lang also said one should be “well into” their 40s before applying. She and Justice Sandra Bacchus of the Ontario Court of Justice agreed that lawyers should have had a “very full, satisfying legal career” before applying to the bench.

“This isn’t a job you decide ‘I don’t want to do it’ and leave,” said Bacchus. “If you get there and don’t like it, it’s a problem — you have to be very satisfied and love the law and achieve what you want to achieve first.”

“Our role is a passive one — you’re not an advocate anymore, so you have to apply all of that before you get to the bench.”

Necessary background

A member of the audience asked if someone could still be considered for the bench if they weren’t a litigator. Justice Kathryn Feldman of the Court of Appeal for Ontario answered that some of their best colleagues were not even litigators.

“They come and run a courtroom so professionally and know the rules of evidence or they pick them up and get interested in it and they become superstar judges. If that’s your passion, you’re going to be great at it,” said Feldman.

Lang echoed that, saying judges come from a variety of backgrounds. “We do need people with diverse backgrounds on the bench, so it would be helpful if people outside the normal advocacy stream applied.”

“In the OCJ, I knew of one person who was a lawyer at Gowlings in civil and they sit criminal in Barrie [Ontario] very successfully, so there are all sorts of possibilities,” she said.

Importance of finding a mentor

The panel also spoke about the importance of mentoring women who are coming up through the ranks of becoming a judge.

Justice Kimberley Ann Crosbie, appointed to the Ontario Court of Justice in March 2016 and currently presiding in the Region of Toronto, said we need more mentoring.

“I know I benefited from Justice Feldman’s mentorship, and I worry we’re not doing enough of it now because it seems everyone is so pressed for time.”

Crosbie has served as a mentor to students and has been teaching courses at Osgoode Hall Law School since 2009, and in other law schools, such as in University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law.

Having mentors is “hugely important,” said Lang. “When I was a young lawyer there weren’t that many women lawyers around, but they were always there for me.”

“I must say when you find a mentor, often the mentor is pretty busy, so the mentee has to be the one that stays in touch. There are also good mentors outside of law,” she added.

Lang also pointed out that women don’t nominate each other for awards as much as they should. “We need to start nominating each other for awards,” she said.

Don’t hold back in your application

When applying to be a judge, what should an application include? Don’t hold back, said Feldman.

“Women tend to be modest — you should put everything out there and articulate why you think you have the ability to be a good listener and to adjudicate fairly and justly.”

“Also, be personal — let your personality show through in the application,” she said.

When it comes to references, Feldman said the committees that vet the applications do “an incredible job” of looking broadly.

“They don’t just speak to those written on the application as submitted but consult widely in the profession and in the judiciary. Although references are important, your reputation in the community is going to be sought out in the committees.”

As such, Feldman said that references are not as important as they used to be because of the way the committees operate.

Make yourself known and available

As Bacchus said, making sure people know who you are is also critical. “Access to leadership positions is still a club and somebody has to be able to vouch for your credibility.”

“Make yourself open and available to those around you. That includes male senior leaders where you are now — the people who currently hold the key to these positions need to know who you are,” she added.

Prepare for the worst and the best

Katherine Kay, a litigator at Stikeman Elliott LLP, asked the panel, “What’s the worst part of being a judge?”

“I loved judging, but the one thing I don’t miss is the detailed writing,” said Lang. “I was always very decisive, but there comes a point when you think you’ve done enough of it [and] you should leave, but I can’t really think of a bad part.”

Bacchus said her jurisdiction is so busy that vacation time has to be submitted 18 months ahead of time — very inflexible in terms of changing. That’s a minor adjustment, but, otherwise, she’s happy.

Crosbie said now that she is no longer the lawyer arguing the case, she finds herself worrying about a decision going to appeal court.

“One thing I’ve noticed is as a lawyer when you argued a case you worried about what the judge will say, but now you worry what the Court of Appeal will do with the decision.”

For Lang, who practiced primarily in the family law bar, when she became a judge, she found she couldn’t sit on family law cases very easily. “I found I wanted to be on the other side and get down there and do it right, so I went and sat on criminal and civil and other things. I did go back to family law my last week as a judge.”

Key takeaways on how to become a judge

Making your way to the bench is not that easy – but it’s also not impossible.

With the right mentor, knowledge of the laws, experience in the field, and standards for judicial ethics, one can become the judge you’ve always dreamt of. With it comes many responsibilities in the interest of the public and for the administration of justice. It may be a challenging yet fulfilling path, and the journey to the bench is worth it.

Read more resources on how to become a judge in Canada by checking out our Litigation practice area page

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