The Honourable Lori Anne Thomas

LThomas.jpegWhat was your path into law and onto the bench?

I took psychology in undergrad because I wanted to be a psychologist, but that didn’t work out. I was offered a job at Harlequin and reasoned that I would make the same amount of money if I finished school—but I would have huge debts. That was difficult for me to swallow, so I ended up working instead. Fortunately, a friend of mine at Harlequin strongly encouraged me to consider a career in law and suggested that I look into how to apply to law school as a mature student. I eventually got into Osgoode Hall Law School but I didn’t apply right away. I wanted to clear every dollar of debt I had because I found it too overwhelming to take on that much debt.

Upon graduating from law school, I joined Lafontaine & Associates where I practiced criminal defence. It was high level criminal work and my co-workers were fantastic. After seven years of working at the firm, I was comfortable with the law and some of business aspects of running a law firm, and I felt like it was time for me to make my own name. I gave my employer six months’ notice and began working as a sole practitioner in January 2016.

I started thinking of becoming a judge when a friend of mine, Justice Nyron Dwyer, became a judge. He told me about the process and what they were looking for—people with an even temperament, who are engaged in the legal community, and also volunteer. He pointed out that those were all things that I did naturally and he felt it would be really good for me. Still, it was hard to apply because I was practicing as a defence lawyer and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to leave. I really liked what I was doing and I liked the freedom that you have as a defence lawyer, especially when you are your own boss. Ultimately, someone convinced me by saying: “Think about the people you’ve helped as a lawyer, and the frustration that you sometimes felt when you couldn’t help them. Think of what you could do as a judge.” And it is true, I can be of greater help as a judge. I may have a trial that lasts a whole week, but I can sit in plea court and have a conversation with someone who may have felt unheard previously. I can try to understand the people that come before me. I ended up applying in February 2020 and I received the call on October 8, 2020. Ultimately, it’s a great job and I don’t have to chase clients to pay me, so that’s nice.

What experience in your legal career best prepared you for your work on the bench?

I would write a lot as a litigator. I just did it because it helped me formulate my thoughts and combine the facts and the law. It’s important to get comfortable writing because it is essential to judging.

It’s also really important to volunteer and give back to your community, in a legal capacity or otherwise. You should understand the community that you serve. I was a board member of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association and I was President of the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers. I also volunteered for Out of the Cold, which really helped me understand the current situation for people who struggle economically. You get to see them and hear what they are going through, how they live, what they do, whether they have a place to sleep or not at night. If you engage with your community and members of the public, you will begin to understand how you can help. As a judge, you are a public servant.  When you understand that, you can actually be a better judge.

What advice do you have for counsel who [will] appear before you?

I’m still quite green in the position, but I would say counsel should remember why they are there. It’s not about ego or personalities, it is about the case and the lives the case affects. That means knowing the facts and the law. All that said, I have had very good counsel appear before me.

What do you wish the public knew about the justice system?

Everyone’s goal in the justice system is to ensure fairness. Fairness means that everybody’s position gets heard. If you are charged, you will get the benefit of reasonable doubt if there is one. If you are a victim or a complainant or a witness, you will be respected, your testimony will be heard, and you will be able to testify without interference or fear of being intimidated. Fairness also means counsel do their best to get to the best result, ethically and understanding their role.  This applies equally to the judge. Finally, that court staff are dedicated to ensuring the smoothness of the operation of justice.

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