Spotlight on Annual General Meeting

  • February 20, 2020

The Chief Justice of Canada is calling on the legal community to advocate for judicial independence as a pillar of a democratic society, especially as judges are not as free to speak up about it.

“While the scales of justice may tip to one side or another, the scales of democracy must not,” Chief Justice  Richard Wagner said in his remarks to the Annual General Meeting of the CBA on Wednesday, February 19. “As members of the bar and engaged citizens, you have a role in maintaining this balance.”

“And do not underestimate that role: your involvement in the public discourse, as individual lawyers and through the voice of the Canadian Bar Association, is necessary to support the judiciary and ensure judicial independence. You speak where we cannot.”

The Chief Justice reminded his audience that judicial independence may be straightforward in theory. But it has come “under threat” in many parts of the world at a time of diminishing trust and faith in institutions. “Once judicial independence begins to erode, even just a little, the danger is that the whole edifice may eventually crumble.”

The Chief Justice also stressed that judicial independence is not meant to benefit judges individually. The benefits accrue to Canadians, “who can trust in their justice system because they have confidence that judges are deciding the cases that affect them independently and impartially.”

He cited the Accord to strengthen the independence of the Supreme Court of Canada, which Justice Wagner signed with Minister of Justice and Attorney General David Lametti last summer, as a framework for how the Supreme Court and the Minister of Justice interact. It is intended to set out guidelines that ensure the court’s independence from government influence, especially when the government is found arguing frequently before the court.

“I can say emphatically that there has never been a time when we on the bench felt inappropriate pressure from another branch of government to make a particular decision. Nonetheless, our democracy demands that we avoid even the perception that this is possible,” Chief Justice Wagner said.

In her report to the membership, CBA President Vivene Salmon also addressed the theme of judicial independence. “When judicial independence is threatened, and judges cannot speak for themselves, we speak up,” she said. “Populism is on the rise, and the rule of law is under threat in many countries around the world.”

In addition to the Chief Justice’s remarks and deliberation on 8  resolutions (see separate story), the AGM dealt with the business of the CBA. Close to 150 people participated in the meeting, either on-site at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier in Ottawa or by joining the meeting from 10 hubs across the country.

Salmon stressed the CBA’s long history and current activities as the voice of the legal profession in Canada. “CBA works on the front lines of our justice system to protect the core values of the legal profession from regulatory and legislative encroachment,” she said.

She cited the two strategic advocacy priorities – access to justice and protection of solicitor-client privilege, and described the #LegalAidMatters campaign during the 2019 federal election as “impactful.”

“We framed legal aid as an access to justice issue, with the goal of raising awareness of the need for stable, sustainable funding across the country,” she said.

Salmon reported that the membership strategy that has been in place for two years is strengthening the membership base and engaging CBA members.

CBA Chief Executive Officer Cheryl Farrow cited several achievements in her report to the AGM. In recent member surveys, Farrow noted that Professional Development offerings consistently remain one of the top sources of value and satisfaction for CBA members. She also described the CBA’s ongoing efforts to respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action.

“We have seen significant innovation in our member communications over the last couple of years,” added Farrow, noting the digitalization of National magazine and newsletters and increased social media presence. The CBA’s podcast series “Conversations with the President” and the award-winning “The Every Lawyer” series, was a recipient of the 2019 Clawbie (or Canadian Law Blog) award for best podcast.