2014 Year in Review: Judicial Independence in Canada

By Logan St. John-Smith

Canada’s justice system was briefly in the international spotlight in 2014, when in a rare move, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) publicly criticised the Canadian Government for interfering with the independence of the judiciary.

This came after a group of Canadian legal academics and lawyers asked the ICJ to investigate statements made by the Prime Minister and Minister of Justice regarding the conduct of the Chief Justice surrounding the appointment of Marc Nadon to the Supreme Court of Canada.

These statements, issued shortly after the Supreme Court ruled that Justice Nadon was ineligible for appointment to the Supreme Court of Canada, accused the Chief Justice of acting inappropriately by attempting to contact the Prime Minister regarding pending appointments to the court in the spring of 2013.

This public criticism of the Chief Justice led the Federation of Law Societies of Canada to issue a public statement expressing its concern that these comments risked diminishing public confidence in Canada’s democratic institutions.

In a public letter dated July 23, the ICJ called on the Prime Minister and the Minister of Justice to apologize, claiming that their comments “amounted to an encroachment upon the independence of the judiciary and the integrity of the Chief Justice”. The ICJ also found that nothing in the Chief Justice’s actions had violated international rules.

Specifically, the ICJ expressed its view that Chief Justice McLachlin’s attempt to alert the Minister of Justice to a potential legal issue arising from the nomination of a Justice of the Federal Court did not constitute a breach of the Bangalore Principles.

The Bangalore Principles are an international code of ethical conduct for members of the judiciary that promote the independence and integrity of the judicial system.

This kind of international criticism is rarely directed at Canada, and serves as a cautious reminder of the importance of judicial independence, even in a developed democracy like ours.