In light of the most recent round of federal judicial appointments announced last week, I wasn't surprised to find 24 women and just one man attending the Manitoba Bar Association's lunch & learn event, So You Want to be a Judge? earlier this week. The event, co-sponsored by the Women Lawyers Forum and Equality Issues section focused on providing practical information on the process of seeking an appointment to the provincial or federal bench.
Panelists from the Manitoba Court of Appeal, Manitoba Court of Queen's Bench and Provincial Court of Manitoba spoke frankly about their own experiences on the bench and in applying for appointment.
The Honourable Madam Justice Steel, who was appointed in 2000 as the 2nd woman on Manitoba’s Court of Appeal, noted that a judicial bench should reflect the diversity of the population. While progress has been made in gender diversity, she pointed out that the percentage of women on the bench in all Canadian court currently stands at approximately 31% and that this number has been declining rather than rising in recent times. Indeed, the most recent round of federal appointments of judges across the country included 9 new appointments, of which 3 were women, and in Manitoba, only 1 woman has been appointed out of 6 judicial appointments made in 2013.
It is trite to say that progress made in the past does not guarantee future outcomes. Madam Justice Steel reminded the more junior lawyers in the audience not to become complacent and assume the “battles fought” and won by women lawyers in the past have forever settled the issues.
In response to my question as to how to effectively support and promote lawyers in under-represented groups to the bench, Madam Justice Steel urged a two-pronged approach. First, qualified lawyers from within those groups need to be encouraged and supported in the process of making their applications for judicial appointments. And second, representatives of equality-seeking groups, whether from within or outside the legal profession, need to actively lobby those with political capital and influence to select from among these qualified and under-represented applicants at such time as appointments are being made.
The Canadian Bar Association's August 2013 Resolution on Equality in Judicial Appointments reflects the national importance of this issue. In their March 2013 article, Representing Canada on the bench: On gender balance, equality and judicial appointments, Krystle Gill and Alycia Shaw summed up the reasons to support ongoing action towards a more representative bench as follows:
While there is no doubt that appointees to the judiciary are qualified, hardworking and dedicated individuals, the richness of our judicial tapestry is deepened when there is gender balance and diversity of background, culture, experience and, ultimately, perspective. When the faces of the judiciary reflect the demographics of our society, including gender and race, the trust that individuals have in the judicial system will be heightened.
While political action is required to effect the terms of the resolution, we each can take steps, as urged by Madam Justice Steel, to support individual applicants from under-represented groups and also to support those groups in lobbying to create the political will necessary to see change in this arena.