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Editorial: A question of justice

['The Supreme Court of Canada']
The Supreme Court of Canada

“Not only must justice be done; it must also be seen to be done.” It’s an adage that’s taken on a new meaning in Atlantic Canada when it comes to the composition of provincial Supreme Courts.

In an open letter to Canada’s justice minister Oct. 25, a group representing Atlantic trial lawyers called on Ottawa to follow its new diversity and merit-based process to ensure transparency and fairness with judicial appointments.

Since new criteria were announced last year, three of the five judicial appointments made in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island came from the same area of private practice — insurance defence — and from the same regional law firm, Stewart McKelvey.

As of the time the letter was written, four of the six federally appointed Supreme Court and Court of Appeal judges on P.E.I. are former members of this same firm. Two more P.E.I. justices were added Oct. 27 and one was from the same firm. The vacant position of chief justice was filled by a sitting judge with nine months’ experience on the bench — also from Stewart McKelvey.

Lawyers are calling foul.

Brian Hebert, president of the Halifax-based Atlantic Trial Lawyers Association, argues that since judges play a fundamental role in ensuring public confidence in our legal system, diversity of gender and race on the bench is important, as is legal experience and perspective.

One senior Charlottetown lawyer said last week’s appointments are the talk of the P.E.I. legal community. No one is critical of the individuals, but many are concerned that the two P.E.I. chief justices and five of eight judges are from the same law firm — a firm that gets much of the legal work from both levels of government, and which has in its employ past presidents of the provincial Liberal and Progressive Conservative parties.

Charlottetown MP Sean Casey and former MP Shawn Murphy were from that firm, as well.

And criticism isn’t just coming from the legal community.

Last month, a letter writer suggested the P.E.I. bench is so biased from political patronage appointments that Ottawa should fill any vacancies with candidates from outside the province to improve the impartiality of the court.

The lack of diversity on court benches also resulted in a public plea from an Atlantic Mi’kmaq chief who said a more balanced judiciary is critical in order to reflect the diversity of perspectives of the population it serves, including that of the Indigenous Mi’kmaq.

Many people in the Atlantic legal community question the fairness involved in the selection of judges, a process that’s shrouded in mystery. The federal government should follow its new rules and criteria more diligently.

Ottawa might score points with its appointments to the Supreme Court of Canada, but it’s getting a failing grade with its choices for Atlantic Canadian Supreme Court benches.

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