SCC Chief Justice Richard Wagner tells critics of court rulings to at least read the judgement first

Head of top court makes a spirited plea to stop disinformation that imperils the justice system

SCC Chief Justice Richard Wagner tells critics of court rulings to at least read the judgement first

Critics of court decisions - including elected leaders - should at the very least take the time to read the rulings first, said Richard Wagner, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, at his annual media conference.

“Let me be clear - in a democracy, we accept and even desire that court decisions will be the topic of debates,” Wagner said. “But it is important that these debates take place in a respectful manner. And above all, in an informed manner. People should at the very least read court decisions before criticizing them.”

Wagner added that the public’s trust in Canada’s court system is “essential to the rule of law” in a healthy democracy. 

“The Supreme Court of Canada, like all Canadian courts, benefits from great trust on the part of citizens. However, “today we are witnessing attacks on our judges and our institutions, something that we used to only see abroad.

“We have also witnessed all sorts of damage caused by court decisions being misreported or out of context for purposes of sensationalism.”

Wagner made his comments at his yearly meeting with the media to provide an update on the work of Canada’s top court and other matters relating to the country’s justice system. 

He noted that a Leger poll last year put the SCC in third place - after the police and Elections Canada - when it comes to having the confidence of Canadians. But the justice system, including the Supreme Court, is being attacked, Wagner says, in a way he has not seen before. 

It is “troubling when the judge is more scrutinized than the judgment itself,” Wagner said. “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.”

Wagner’s comments come after the reaction to a March SCC decision, R. v. Kruk, that contains the expression “person with a vagina.” The Quebec legislature unanimously adopted a motion by Minister for the Status of Women Martine Biron denouncing the Supreme Court of Canada’s words to refer to women.

The motion asked that the national assembly “reiterate the importance of retaining the word ‘woman’ and dissociate itself from the use of terms or concepts that contribute to the invisibilisation of women.”

It also noted “the significant gains made in recent decades to advance women’s rights and the need to protect these acquired rights.”

The motion was presented jointly with Liberal MNA and former prosecutor André A. Morin, Parti Québécois leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon and independent MNA Marie-Claude Nichols.

However, the 249-page Supreme Court decision, with the majority decision written by Justice Sheilah Martin, reaffirmed the rights of complainants in sexual assault cases. As well, the words “person with a vagina” appears only once, in paragraph 109. The word “woman” appears 67 times.

Wagner said Monday that had those politicians commenting on the widely reported part of the decision had read the entire ruling, they would have seen that the Supreme Court “never wished to devalue the notion of womanhood.”

The Quebec Liberal Party later said it was sorry it went along with the decision, promising to be “more vigilant” in the future and will conduct more due diligence before voting in favour of the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government’s motions.

When a reporter brought up the Kruk case during the question and answer session following Wagner’s remarks, the chief justice said it was a “great example” of disinformation. “Someone saw an article. Perhaps they didn’t check it [and] made a comment, he said.  “And they came to the wrong conclusion.”

He said the challenge to counter disinformation is needed more than ever before, given the current era of social media and the polarization in society, “especially south of the border.”

Wagner did not specifically respond to what he thought about one of the contenders in the next U.S. presidential election, Donald Trump, saying the system “is rigged against” him after he was found guilty of 34 felony counts of falsifying business records relating to “hush money” he paid to supress negative media stories.

However, Wagner said it’s important in Canada and other democracies to protect the justice system’s independence by “denouncing any attacks” on the institution and its judges.

“More people are having difficulty telling fact from fiction. This can lead people, even people of good faith, to lose trust in their institutions.” He added that there is a great need to denounce and condemn incorrect comments and “set the record straight.”

“Let us not fool ourselves. If we become complacent, let’s not be surprised to see the very foundations of the rule of law and our democracy crumble away.”

Recent articles & video

Survey report highlights challenges and solutions for family violence cases in Nova Scotia courts

Suncor's David Kramer speaks about big deals, the energy transition and career advice

Lawyers must be increasingly aware of technological, geopolitical trends: software founder Sean West

Who made it to the 2024 list of top pro bono law firms?

Tracy Davis appointed as Assistant Chief Justice of the Alberta Court of Justice

Charles Randall Smith re-appointed as chairperson of RCMP External Review Committee

Most Read Articles

BC Supreme Court rejects husband’s claim against wife’s counsel over family home sale proceeds

Crown attorneys share responsibility for Canada’s dysfunctional justice system

Lawyer salaries may vary more in wake of competition law changes: recruiter report

'We need to have the competence to question:' LegalTech panel on genAI fakes in the legal system