Qualifications and Assessment Criteria
The qualifications for appointment to the Supreme Court of Canada are set out in the Supreme Court Act, R.S.C. 1985, c. S 26. Section 5 provides that “Any person may be appointed a judge who is or has been a judge of a superior court of a province or a barrister or advocate of at least ten years standing at the bar of a province.”
In order to be eligible for appointment to the Supreme Court of Canada, a candidate must be:
(1) a current judge of a superior court of a province, including courts of appeal;
(2) a former judge of such a court;
(3) a current barrister or advocate of at least 10 years standing at the bar of a province; or
(4) a former barrister or advocate of at least 10 years standing.
There are special rules for appointment of three judges from Quebec. Section 6 provides that “At least three of the judges shall be appointed from among the judges of the Court of Appeal or of the Superior Court of the Province of Quebec or from among the advocates of that Province.” In the Reference re Supreme Court Act, ss 5 and 6, the Supreme Court stated that only current superior court judges (i.e. judges of the Court of Appeal of Quebec and the Superior Court of Quebec) and current members of the Quebec bar of at least 10 years standing are eligible for appointment to one of the three Quebec positions on the Supreme Court.
All judges of the Supreme Court must live in the National Capital Region or within 40 kilometres thereof. Candidates must either currently meet this qualification or undertake to move their residence, if appointed to the Supreme Court, in order to meet it.
The Government has committed to only appoint judges who are functionally bilingual.
The Supreme Court hears appeals in both English and French. Written materials may be submitted in either official language and counsel may present oral argument in the official language of their choice. Judges may ask questions in English or French. It is expected that a Supreme Court judge can read materials and understand oral argument without the need for translation or interpretation in French and English. Ideally, the judge can converse with counsel during oral argument and with other judges of the Court in French or English.
Judges of the Supreme Court of Canada face multiple, complex and occasionally competing expectations. In keeping with Canada’s evolution into a mature constitutional democracy, the role of the courts, and the Supreme Court in particular, has become ever more important. The criteria for appointment to the Court must reflect both the needs of any court of final appeal, and the particular circumstances, history and context of Canadian society and its legal system. The criteria must facilitate the Court’s ability to: resolve disputes between and among all manner of parties, communicate its decisions effectively to the Canadian public, uphold the constitution, and protect the rule of law.
Criteria for assessment may be grouped along two axes, one individual and the other institutional. Individual criteria relate to the skills, experience and qualities of candidates themselves. Particulars of legal training, of non-legal professional experience and of community involvement will vary greatly from individual to individual, but must be assessed to arrive at an evaluation of the candidate’s potential for excellence in the judicial function. There are also numerous personal qualities that will bear on whether a candidate has the appropriate judicial temperament. Institutional criteria will overlap to some degree with individual ones. But as the Court’s composition shifts over time, particular needs may emerge as more necessary to enable the Court to perform its general and final appellate function in all legal areas.
Part of the selection process will involve determining the ways and degree to which particular candidates embody the skills, experience and qualities that best meet the Court’s needs at a particular point in time. The selection process must retain an appropriate degree of flexibility.
Personal Skills and Experience
The chief consideration for any appointment is a person’s ability to perform, and achieve excellence in, judging. At the Supreme Court, cases and references can arise in any legal area including public, private and international law. Judges must interpret and apply the governing statute and rules of the Supreme Court in a variety of proceedings relating to hearings, motions and appeals. Candidates for the Court must therefore possess deep knowledge of the law, in particular Canadian law. Knowledge of indigenous legal traditions may also be considered. This depth of skill may be acquired in a variety of ways: specialized legal training and study, professional practice, authoritative or scholarly legal writing and/or prior judicial experience.
The Supreme Court hears cases from matters under federal jurisdiction as well as from all provinces and territories, including Quebec, which follows a civil law tradition for most private law matters. Familiarity with the civil law tradition, therefore, is a strength for any candidate.
2. Superior analytical skills.
A jurist must synthesize, distinguish, compare and contrast a variety of legal sources. They must efficiently determine which of the vast possible materials that constitute “the law” are most relevant to a specific legal question; and understand, weigh and resolve conflicts among those materials. An appellate judge must also review lower court decisions, determine appropriate grounds of appeal, distinguish between questions of fact and law and apply the suitable level of deference or correction. All of these are analytical functions requiring an exceptionally high degree of skill and discernment.
3. Ability to resolve complex legal problems
The core function of the Supreme Court is to adjudicate legal disputes and to provide reasons explaining its decisions. As an adjudicator, a judge is not just required to hear a case, but to give an answer: to bring the matter to a legal conclusion. In appellate cases, resolution may be elusive as the issues tend to feature reasonably competing arguments. Nonetheless, a judge must be able to arrive at a sound decision, to support that decision with reasons and to provide the requisite certainty so that the instant dispute is resolved, and so that lower courts receive sufficient guidance to decide similar cases in the future.
Therefore, prior experience in adjudication is relevant though not essential. Adjudication can occur in many contexts, including administrative tribunals, arbitration bodies, and trial and appellate courts. As the Supreme Court is itself an appellate court, prior appellate judicial experience may be especially relevant but, again, is not essential for appointment.
4. Awareness of, and ability to synthesize information about, the social context in which legal disputes arise.
A judge should demonstrate a general awareness of and an interest in knowing about the social problems that give rise to cases coming before the courts. They should be sensitive to changes in social values relating to the subject matter of cases before the Supreme Court. Many of the cases that the Supreme Court hears are not solely focussed on technical questions of law. Instead, they involve complex interactions between law and fact, particularly social facts that help to explain a law’s purpose, the way that it tends to function and its effects on people or society as a whole. This interaction between law and social fact is most prominent in constitutional cases, but is not limited to them. A judge must therefore be able to receive evidence and argument about these social facts, or context, and use them to appropriately resolve the specific questions posed.
In most cases, the Supreme Court is expected to, and does, issue written reasons for its decisions. Decisions are the Court’s most important method of communicating with parties, with courts, with other branches of government, and with the Canadian public. Reasons help to explain the basis for deciding complex legal issues one way versus another. Reasons also satisfy the Court’s duty to provide guidance to the lower courts which are expected to apply those decisions in future cases. Excellence in written expression is thus essential to the Court’s work, and a candidate’s prior writing must be reviewed. Such writing can take a number of forms: judicial decisions, reports, memoranda of legal arguments, books, treatises and scholarly articles. The writing may be reviewed for, among other things, clarity, precision, command of the law, persuasiveness and balance. It is expected that the materials reviewed will primarily be legal in nature, though non-legal written expression may provide some assistance.
The Supreme Court hears appeals in all areas of law. Its nine members share a variety of adjudicative tasks. Cases at the Supreme Court often contain hundreds of pages of materials, and judges work on multiple cases at the same time. Judges must review materials in preparation for cases, review materials for decisions they are writing and review drafts and memos from their colleagues. The workload is heavy and constant. The job therefore requires significant stamina, industry and learning ability.
Judges are part of the community and fulfill an essential service to the public in addition to their constitutional role as impartial dispute arbiters. A demonstrated commitment to community engagement through involvement in community and volunteer organizations is a strength.
The Supreme Court has noted: “The judge is the pillar of the entire justice system and of the rights and freedoms which that system is designed to promote and protect”. Judges must themselves embody the ideals upon which the rule of law depends.
Canadians, thus, rightfully expect the highest level of ethical conduct from judges. As the Chief Justice of Canada has stated, “The ability of Canada’s legal system to function effectively and to deliver the kind of justice that Canadians need and deserve depends in large part on the ethical standards of our judges.” As noted by the Canadian Judicial Council’s Ethical Principles for Judges, “Public confidence in and respect for the judiciary are essential to an effective judicial system and, ultimately, to democracy founded on the rule of law.”
The Supreme Court is a collegial court which is composed of nine judges who work and sit together day in and day out. Its judges deal with issues of the highest national importance. Their decisions are final and not subject to appeal to any other court in Canada. It is critical that each judge is able to work collaboratively with his or her colleagues and debate issues in a respectful and constructive manner. In addition, judges must be sensitive when dealing with persons in subordinate positions. It is expected that they will model the highest standards of professionalism, respect and courtesy.
Along with legal expertise, a judge will invariably draw on common sense and experience. It is, therefore, crucial that their perspective is neither too narrow nor resistant to change. A judge must have the capacity to empathize with persons who come from backgrounds that are very different from her own.
4. Moral courage
Judicial independence has been recognized as an unwritten constitutional principle under Canada’s Constitution. It exists in order to protect the ability of judges to decide cases impartially, free of any external influence or coercion. Canadian judges enjoy a high degree of independence that is respected around the world. Nevertheless, Supreme Court judges sometimes face extremely challenging issues. They may be faced with making a decision that is at odds with the stated wishes of the government, with public opinion or with the views of their colleagues. This requires a measure of fortitude.
Judges deal with sensitive and personal information. Their discussions are subject to deliberative secrecy and cannot be revealed. It is critical therefore that judges conduct themselves in a discreet fashion.
One of the most important qualities of a judge is the ability to maintain an open mind about any case that comes before him or her. To be clear, judges are not expected to operate as blank slates. The fact that a candidate has expressed an opinion on some issue that may one day come before the Court is not disqualifying. But a judge must be seen as able to weigh the evidence and argument in a particular case fairly and impartially, and to set aside any prior personal opinions when rendering a decision.
The Supreme Court of Canada is a general court of appeal for Canada which hears appeals in all subject areas from provincial and territorial courts of appeal, from the Federal Court of Appeal and from the Court Martial Appeal Court of Canada. According to the most recent statistics, approximately one quarter of the cases heard by the Supreme Court are criminal non-Charter cases, almost another fifth are criminal Charter cases, and another fifth are non-criminal constitutional/Charter cases. The Court hears other types of cases but the subject-areas just noted represent the most significant areas of the Court’s workload.
Because of its diverse caseload, the Court must have judges with a diversity of expertise in order to address particular subject matters that will arise. A vacancy on the Court may give rise to a need for expertise in a particular subject matter: e.g. criminal, administrative, federal or commercial law.
Canada is one of the world’s most diverse societies, but that diversity is not fully reflected in its institutions. The Supreme Court is the most important and recognizable symbol of the justice system. Having a Court that is reasonably reflective of Canadian diversity helps to ensure that, in any particular case, the Court can benefit from a range of viewpoints and perspectives. A reasonably reflective Court also promotes public confidence in the administration of justice as well as in the appointment process.
Table of Contents
- Supreme Court of Canada Appointments
- Report of the Independent Advisory Board for the Supreme Court of Canada Judicial Appointments (November 2016) (view Minister of Justice's press release)
- The Honourable Malcolm Rowe's questionnaire
- The Independent Advisory Board for Supreme Court of Canada Judicial Appointments
- Biographies of Members
- Terms of Reference of the Advisory Board
- Qualifications and Assessment Criteria
- How to Apply and Instructions
- Frequently Asked Questions
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