The chief justice of the B.C. Supreme Court says he is frustrated by the federal government’s “failure” to appoint judges, and is calling on Ottawa to urgently fill at least nine vacancies.
Christopher Hinkson said he is speaking out after exhausting all other options to persuade Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.
“I don’t like rushing off to the press and trying to confront the minister in that fashion,” he said Thursday. “But I’ve given up the softer approaches because they simply haven’t worked.
“We still remain with an insufficient number of judges to serve the needs of the public in British Columbia and to provide what has been promised to them, and that is access to justice.”
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Hinkson said there are 10 vacancies in the court, while the federal government puts the figure at nine. He also wants Ottawa to establish five new judicial positions in B.C.
Most Monday mornings, he said he meets with as many as 10 litigants whose cases have to be delayed — some for a year — because judges are not available.
“I have explained to them that, in my view, they should have had a judge, and if we had a full complement they would have had a judge,” he said. “They doubtless will have had to pay their lawyers to prepare for the case and they will get to do that again.”
The vacancies account for 10 per cent of the B.C. Supreme Court’s judiciary. Judges are overworked, burdened by more complex cases and appear to be retiring earlier, Hinkson said.
Wilson-Raybould’s office overhauled the appointment process in 2016 to boost the numbers of non-white and women judges. It made changes to judicial advisory committees, which review candidates and make recommendations, including requiring members to receive diversity training.
The committee in B.C. has recommended more than nine candidates, said Hinkson, but the minister has rejected them because they were not “suitable,” though he doesn’t know what criteria she is using.
He said while he supports increasing diversity, if people from diverse backgrounds are not applying or do not meet the requirements to be a judge, the positions shouldn’t be left vacant.
“It’s taken a while to have sufficient numbers of women to suggest that they could form an equal part of the court. … It’s the same with other areas that aren’t proportionally represented,” he said. “There aren’t sufficient people in those groups yet to populate the court.
“The minister has said that she wants merit-based appointments. Sometimes, merit is going to dictate that a certain demographic is over-represented on the court because those are where the meritorious people exist.”
Wilson-Raybould said she expects to announce new appointments shortly. Last year she appointed 100 judges, the most by a justice minister in over two decades, and she has made 151 appointments since she became minister in 2015, she said.
“I am deeply proud of the all of the appointments I have made since becoming minister,” she said in a statement. “We are beginning to demonstrate how it is possible to have a bench that truly reflects the country we live in.”
Candidates are assessed on merit and the needs of the court, Wilson-Raybould said.
To create new judicial positions, Wilson-Raybould said the chief justice and the province must provide a business case for an increase, and B.C. has not made a request while she has been minister.
On Wednesday, Wilson-Raybould appointed one new justice to the B.C. Supreme Court and moved a judge to the Appeal Court.
Hinkson said he decided to speak to a small group of journalists on Thursday partly because the former chief justice of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench was vocal and appeared to get Ottawa’s attention. Alberta has more vacancies than B.C., but it received nine new judicial positions this year, he said.
The previous Conservative government left the B.C. court with six vacancies, which climbed to as many as 14 under the Liberals, he said.
“It’s gone on too long.”
Laura Kane, The Canadian Press