Must Supreme Court Judges Be Bilingual?

James Moore, Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages, appeared before the Standing Committee on Official Languages yesterday to address Bill C-232, a private members bill introduced by NDP caucus whip Yvon Godin, the simple aim of which is to require that all Supreme Court judges be fluent in both official languages.

Bill C-232 reads in English as follows:

1. Section 5 of the Supreme Court Act is renumbered as subsection 5(1) and is amended by adding the following:

(2) In addition, any person referred to in subsection (1) may be appointed a judge who understands French and English without the assistance of an interpreter.

According to various news reports, Minister Moore said that while bilingualism was important in such a position, “If someone cannot speak both official languages perfectly, this should not be a criteria that would prevent them from submitting their candidacy for the court.”

I’m not sure if there is information currently available as to whether all present judges of the court are in fact able to “understand” both official languages. I suspect that all may be able to read both languages, but that some might have trouble comprehending oral argument in French.


  1. From what I understand only Rothstein is unilingual.

  2. If we’re going to be this serious about making Canadian law bilingual, we need to start from the bottom up, not the top down. I took French through highschool (and an extra year because it was in Ontario) but I can still barely muddle through basic sentences, and most of my colleagues (in Toronto) are the same.

    Would we really want to reject an otherwise exemplary Supreme Court candidate for being unilingual, knowing how difficult it is to be bilingual unless you start early or have an affinity for languages?

  3. Quebec’s law faculties offer increasing access to common law education. These include the transsystemic BCL/LLB program at McGill; the new and, I gather, popular DESS in North American Common Law at Universite de Montreal; the graduate diploma in Common Law and Transnational Law at Universite de Sherbrooke; and, really, the options available at University of Ottawa.

    I wonder whether law faculties in other provinces might find interest in teaching civil law — and French along with it. As an example, wouldn’t it make sense for Osgoode to consider delivering a graduate diploma or LLM in Civil and Transnational Law (along the lines of Sherbrooke’s program, perhaps) on the Glendon campus?

    Similar to their Quebec common-law counterparts, the Osgoode-Glendon civil law program could offer options with the Barreau du Quebec in mind

  4. I’m already on the record with my thoughts on bilingualism in law generally. However, I do think Sarah has it right: bilingualism should be encouraged through the legal education system (and the educational system generally), not by imposing it at the top.

    Though I must take exception to the proposition that adequate bilingual fluency can only be attained easily through an early start or natural affinity. Millions of allophone immigrants come to Canada as adults and manage to learn to communicate in English or French just fine. In my own experience, the key to fluency is simple: practice. For French, that’s admittedly harder to do in Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver, etc. – but it’s not hard at all if one is living in a French-speaking environment.

  5. it seems law students who are bilingual support this proposition and those who are not don’t. accurate?

  6. Requiring SCC judges to be bilingual drastically shrinks the potential pool of candidates with English as a mother tongue.

    I am not confident that someone of the age to be appointed a judge can readily become fluent enough to follow a legal argument. People’s competence in languages varies enormously, of course, as does their aptitude for math or art or music or engineering…

    But there was a time not so long ago that francophone counsel would argue their cases in the SCC in English because they did not want to rely on the official interpretation to make their points to the judges. That too is a shame.

    Legislation seems to me too inflexible a remedy for this problem.