I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to interview The Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin. Growing up in Pincher Creek, Alberta prepared her well for playing an integral role in our justice system. Here is a little bit about her:
- She was appointed to the County Court of Vancouver (1980, age 37)
- She was the first woman justice on the B.C. Court of Appeal (1981, age of 38)
- She was the first female Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of British Columbia (1985)
- At age 45, she was appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) (1989)
- She was appointed as the first female Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada and the first female chief justice of a Commonwealth nation’s supreme court (2000)
- Prior to her retirement in December, 2017, she was the longest serving chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada (as of 2013)
Lawyers will be aware of her impact on the Supreme Court of Canada. This topic would be worthy of an article unto itself.
As my children played in the back yard, I had an incredible conversation with her.
Q: What was the biggest challenge you faced in trying to maintain a career and also have a family?
I discuss that in my book, but it was a realization for me because I had always been able to give 110% to my career. Then, suddenly I had a child and I couldn’t. I had to sometimes have priorities that took me away or kept me from working in the evenings or whatever it might be. What saved me was – and it was a good lesson -- I realized was I would never be the perfect mom, I would probably never be a perfect lawyer or teacher, and I had been struggling against false ideal of perfection all through my legal career and I realized that I had to change my philosophy. I had to just say: do the best you can do at whatever it is you’ve got in front of you at the time, and move on. And stop being guilty about it.
Q: What do you know now that you didn’t know when you began practicing law, and wish you knew then?
I think that last lesson. The lesson that you just have to do your best at each occasion and move on. And if you somehow feel you have fallen short or you haven’t done exactly what you wanted to do in hindsight, you can’t let it paralyze you.
Q: What are the biggest issues facing Canada’s legal system today?
I think getting justice to people what we call access to justice is the really big thing. There are many, many sub issues on that. I actually think that we are facing a critical time when we are going to have to come to grips with the fact that we have to improve the delivery of legal services.
I think this current epidemic we are in is showing us that our system like many hospitals perhaps has been running on the edge. Delays, backlogs, but somehow getting through with heroic performances by different people from judges to lawyers and so on. But, when we face a problem like we are facing now, courts shutting down, we can’t do it anymore. I think we have to get a more efficient system. That involves using whatever we can. It probably involves – and some of this is happening already - how we handle cases, how we allocate procedures, proportionate and effective to type of case that we have, using technology as much as we can without getting rid of the human part of judging, which is so essential.
Q: What advice would you have for self-represented litigants?
The best advice is to try to get a lawyer. But I know that sounds like ‘let them eat cake’ for many self-represented litigants. I think the second best thing they can do is to try and get as much information, education and advice from proper sources as they can before they move forward; and more importantly, before they move forward assessing their case because I think very often self-represented litigants don’t have that initial assessment of (a) what are your chances of success and (b) if it is worth going ahead, how can you maximize your chances of success and get through the process?
Self-representation is a self-education system. There are different ways to get education. You can do it by just showing up at the courthouse and hoping that the judge and maybe the other counsel will tell you. But the more a self-represented person can know before they go in by other sources is better. In many areas of the country, there are family law information centers, and there are lots of help centers and things like that. So, all of that is good, and I think that self-represented litigants should avail themselves of that.
Q: What limits should there be on the activities that former justices of the Supreme Court of Canada can engage in once they leave the Bench, to preserve the integrity of the office?
It is very clear that they can’t appear before courts either at the level of the Supreme Court of Canada or below which means they can’t be counsel in cases in Canada. And, that’s fine and everybody agrees on that. There has been some debate on other things. I am not going to say that they shouldn’t practice law. They have a lot to give. Many people who retire from the Supreme Court of Canada are quite young and have a lot of ability and experience that can be shared and put to good use.
But I do think that there is a general principle, everybody would agree, that you should avoid situations where people are hiring you just because of your office or because you know they are going to get the ‘big gun’ on their side, arm themselves up with a ‘Supreme Court judge’. That is something no one I know would want to do. But it is hard to avoid people drawing inferences from a client who is properly motivated and just wants to get good advice and may have done that. So, it is a tricky area.
Q: What words of wisdom would you have for women lawyers entering the profession today?
First of all, I think it is a great profession, and don’t forget that there are many, many places within it that you can find your role. Secondly, women can succeed and are succeeding all around us, so don’t be discouraged. And the third thing is perseverance. I really think people have to learn resilience. It is hard sometimes for a young lawyer to step back from a disappointment or a defeat or lack of advancement in the short term. Resilience is really important in the sense of being able to bounce back, and be able to keep pushing forward. Not giving up.
The Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin’s thoughts and encouraging advice apply not only to lawyers or female lawyers, but to all Canadians, particularly in these challenging times.
Prior to the covid-19 pandemic, she was scheduled to speak in Kelowna on May 25, 2020 at Trinity Baptist Church. Given the pandemic, I am uncertain of the status of this event. For tickets, visit: www.KelownaTickets.com
This is a slightly modified version of an article that is appearing in the Kelowna Daily Courier, the Kelowna Capital News and other online publications on or about March 27, 2020. The content of this article is intended to provide very general thoughts and general information, not to provide legal advice. Advice from an experienced legal professional should be sought about your specific circumstances. We may be reached through our website at inspirelaw.ca.