08/11/2016 14:30 EDT | Updated 08/12/2017 01:12 EDT

McLachlin on access to justice, sexual assault and bilingualism on the bench

OTTAWA — Canada's top justice did her best to stay far away from politics during her visit to Canadian Bar Association's annual conference in Ottawa — but that's not to say she kept all of her opinions to herself. A sampling:


"Access to justice in Canada remains a serious problem that imperils the public's confidence in the justice system," Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin said in her speech.

"Rules and procedures are still, sometimes, more complicated than they should be, causing unnecessary delays. Financial barriers continue to thwart access to justice. The low level of funding for legal aid leads litigants to appear in courtrooms without the support of counsel, placing unfair burdens on courts, the litigants, the bar and, ultimately, the public purse.

"And finally, some may hold attitudes of mistrust or fear toward the justice system, refusing to engage with it or acknowledge its legitimacy."


"The court is committed, as a court, to functioning in both official languages," said McLachlin, who would not comment specifically on the Liberal government's decision to require all future nominees to the high court be functionally bilingual.

McLachlin said she was already bilingual when she joined the high court in 1989, having taken every French-language course available to her earlier in her judicial career, but still fell there was room for improvement.

"I still had a ways to go to be fully, I felt, comfortable asking questions and functioning at a very high level," she said.

"I used the job to get even better, to try to become even better, because I believe that it's important that we be able to do that."


McLachlin said there has been a lot of progress in the way the justice system handles sexual assault cases since she was first called to the bar more than 40 years ago.

"We still see the odd case of inappropriate behaviour and it's dealt with as appropriate through the complaints process, but anecdotally I can tell you that as a young woman starting to practice in the early 70s, there was a lot more inappropriate conduct of this kind of case — a lot more sexual innuendo and that kind of thing — than there is now," McLachlin said.

"I think this is a good news story, actually. During my lifetime, we've made a great deal of progress in sensitizing all levels of society — prosecutors, judges, included — to the inappropriateness and to recognize sexual biases and sexual attitudes towards women that they might not otherwise have recognized," she said.

"It's not a rising problem. It's a diminishing problem."


McLachlin called on the federal government to restore funding to the Canadian Judicial Council she chairs, which she said has been struggling to fulfil its statutory mandate since losing a major part of its funding in 2014.

The Canadian Judicial Council asked the federal government for an additional $1.3 million this year, including $700,000 to get back to activities that were abandoned or delayed due to cuts.

"I'm hoping that this will be restored in the near future, because quite frankly it's been difficult to understand why some of these projects that I believe all MPs and … people in government would support, why we haven't been given the money to do it," she said.

That includes having to shelve plans to update and revise ethical principles for judges, she added.

"Maybe we can find better ways of communicating with Treasury Board or whoever it is and making sure that we get the money we need to carry out our statutory mandate."

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