The Supreme Court & Empire Club Addresses

The Empire Club of Canada, a speaker’s club founded in 1903, has digitized a great many of the lunchtime talks given under its auspices. Not suprisingly, the Supreme Court of Canada has been mentioned many times in these lunchtime addresses by distinguished speakers: a search on their database turns up some 45 instances.

Not deep scholarship perhaps, but a valuable historical resource even so, these talks remind us of the issues of yesterday—much as blog entries from today might inform tomorrow of our concerns.

I’ve picked out only 6 speeches here and have excerpted from them very briefly. You can, of course, read the whole speech by clicking on the linked titles. I lead with a recent address by the Chief Justice, Beverley McLachlin, which is available as a webcast rather than as a text.

The Challenges We Face [webcast] The Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin, Chief Justice of Canada
March 8 2007 
More than a quarter century ago, a Canadian Justice Minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, challenged Canadians to build “the just society.” Today, there can be no doubt that Canadians expect a just society. They expect just laws and practices. And they expect justice in their courts. But how do we achieve justice? What are the challenges facing the Canadian judicial system in 2007? The speech will focus on four such challenges – the challenge of access to justice, the challenge of long trials, the challenge of delays in the justice system, and the challenge of dealing with social problems – and the solutions currently being proposed to address them.

Freedom of Expression vs. the Individual’s Right to Privacy

The Hon. Willard Z. Estey, Chairman, Ontario Press Council; and Former Canadian Supreme Court Justice
April 21 1994 — excerpted on “talking about the Charter” 
The problem with the Charter of Rights is that it is too big to talk about; it really can’t be reduced to proportions small enough to talk about, but it’s too big to ignore. The thing is so dull that I must warn you that you are in for a very dull session. That’s not new to me, but it will be new to you.A hundred years ago I was a law professor. I developed the ability to transplant into a law student’s eye sockets, instantaneously, a laminated, glazed, porcelain pair of eyeballs. And that was before I knew that the Charter of Rights was coming down the road, which is tailor-made for that purpose.

What Everyone Should Know about the Supreme Court of Canada
The Right Honourable Bora Laskin, Chief Justice of Canada
March 12 1981 — excerpted on “judges speaking out” 
A predecessor of mine in the office of Chief Justice, the late John R. Cartwright, was fond of saying that the Supreme Court like the navy is a silent service. He did not mean by this that members of the Supreme Court were never to speak out about the Court or discuss its operations with members of the public. What he enjoined was silence about the merits or demerits of decisions of the Court. Once rendered, they spoke for themselves. Certainly, they were open to public discussion, to public criticism or even acclaim, but it was for others, lawyers, law teachers, competent journalists, members of the public, to comment on them. It was not for the judges to enter the lists; their duty was discharged when judgement was given in any particular case.This is still a sound position but I myself do not think that it is today an invariable one. I and my colleagues of the Supreme Court make frequent visits to our law schools and engage freely in discussion with law students and law professors about our judgements, and we do this occasionally in talks with and to members of the legal profession. In those instances, we speak as one group of professionals to another such group or groups, and we regard the exercise as an educative process both for our special audience and for ourselves. I have no doubt, however, that we can prudently engage the general public from time to time in a discussion of our work, and my appearance here today is in recognition of this obligation.

The Future of Our Constitution
John J. Robinette
March 1 1984 — excerpted on “the Charter” 
The Charter of Rights and Freedoms is part of the Constitution of Canada and the Constitution in turn is stated to be the supreme law of Canada and any law that is inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution is, to the extent of that inconsistency, invalid. Is the Charter of Rights and Freedoms mere political decoration or is it a meaningful and salutary restraint on our legislative bodies? Is it a Pandora’s box of horrors? I suggest that, if given a proper and balanced interpretation by the courts, the Charter will prove to be a desirable and effective restraint on the excesses of Canadian legislative bodies.

The Role of Judges

The Rt. Hon. Antonio Lamer, Chief Justice of Canada
April 13 1995 — excerpted on “complexity and prolixity” 
I think our greatest challenge over the next several years will be to cope with complexity and prolixity in legal,, proceedings. We must find ways to retain a fair process, but in the context of a process that can achieve practical results in a reasonable time and at reasonable expense. If ways to do this cannot be found, I fear that our legal system will become simply irrelevant for most purposes. Moreover, if we do not rise to the challenge of complexity and prolixity, will we not be forced to re-examine fundamentally our trial process? May we not, for example, reach the point at which some might question, in a way probably somewhat appealing to the general public, whether the jury trial demands too much of our fellow citizens who must serve on the jury? Might not this, in turn, lead us to conclude that, in our free and democratic society, some limitation is not only necessary, but justified? O

Canada’s Health Charter: Its Implications

the Honourable Emmett M. Hall, Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada
December 9 1965 — excerpted on “children and the Health Charter” 
465,767 children were born in Canada in 1963. Of these, according to statistics, regarded as reliable, about 3 % or some 14,000 were or will be found to be mentally retarded, some to a great, some to a lesser degree. There are about 8 thousand blind children in Canada and an unknown but substantial number who are deaf, and thousands of others otherwise physically disabled; those with cleft palates, with hare-lips, with missing or withered limbs, the spastics, those with cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy or cystic fibrosis and still others. These groups were always very much in our minds as we tried to visualize what ought to be their future in a health services programme for Canada. For all of these the Charter implies a new world of well-being and usefulness. For those with cancer, those who have or may develop heart disease, for the tuberculosis patients, it implies an impetus to research which we all hope may lead to spectacular results.

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