The University of Toronto and Osgoode Chapters of Pro Bono Students Canada came together for their volunteer appreciation event that is held each year at McCarthy Tetrault’s Toronto Office. This year, the event took place on March 13th and featured an extremely special guest: the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, Beverly McLachlin. Although Dean Mayo Moran was called away from the event at the last minute, Osgoode Dean Lorne Sossin told the audience he would do his best to “channel Mayo” in order to introduce the Chief Justice. Dean Sossin then led a Fireside Chat with the Chief, effortlessly and humorously guiding the conversation through a range of topics, including a prediction of upcoming constitutional issues, changes in the Supreme Court during the past twenty-five years, and role models in the Chief Justice’s life and legal career.
When asked what Constitutional issues she believes will take centre stage over the coming decade, Justice McLachlin mentioned Canada’s “reconciliation” with First Nations, describing the story of Canada more broadly as “a project on reconciliation”. She added that the Charter’s guarantee of Freedom of Association could be another area of activity, as well as the ongoing relationship between freedom of religion and equality, a pairing that often takes “new and diverse forms” because it is so central to our society.
When asked about advancements in gender equality she had witnessed during her time in the legal profession, she told a humourous anecdote about a conversation she had with an eighth grade teacher. After reviewing her personality test results, the teacher informed the future Chief Justice that she did not have the attention span required for a career as a telephone operator or a waitress.
The changing nature of technology was another recurring theme, with the Chief Justice covering a range of developments in this area, including the introduction of television cameras to Supreme Court hearings, then bloggers and Tweeters, as well as public access to legal information online. Fittingly, at the close of the talk Dean Sossin took a “selfie” with the Chief Justice, to gales of laughter from the audience.
It would not have been a PBSC event without a discussion of access to justice and pro bono. Here, Chief Justice McLachlin did not disappoint. She stressed the importance of pro bono work by law students and articling students, extolling it as “one of the best ways for people to learn”. As an articling student, she recalled that “pro bono files were some of the most exhilarating experiences I had”. She also described witnessing a cultural shift in the legal community over time, with “a greater emphasis…on the need for the profession to reach out to the community and provide services for people who might not be able to access [a lawyer].”
Dean Sossin noted that Chief Justice McLachlin has herself taken leadership on the access to justice file, by striking a committee on civil and family justice, chaired by Supreme Court Justice Thomas Cromwell. Although the Chief Justice noted that the work of the committee and the profession’s response to it has exceeded her expectations, she downplayed her own role by suggesting that she herself “didn’t actually do much.”
PBSC National Director Nikki Gershbain told the audience that she begged to differ. In her closing remarks, she said: “At the risk of disagreeing with the Chief Justice of Canada, I would observe that Chief Justice McLachlin has sparked a dialogue on access to justice that has reverberated throughout the profession…. I think it’s fair to say that the momentum we’ve seen over the last year or so, the collective desire by the profession to take concrete steps to repair the justice system in this country, is directly as a result of her commitment”.
To thank Justice McLachlin for her participation in the event, PBSC made a donation in her name to Lawyers Feed the Hungry, a program of the Law Society Foundation that provides hot, healthy community meals to street involved residents in Toronto, Ottawa, London and Windsor.