Justice minister says he’s ‘proud’ of government’s record on appointing judges

The federal justice minister has written a letter to the Supreme Court’s chief justice saying he’s “proud” of the Liberal government’s record on appointing judges.

Justice Minister Arif Virani sent the letter to Chief Justice Robert Wagner a year after Wagner warned Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that a chronic shortage of judges was putting “democratic institutions” at risk. 

Chief Justice Wagner said at the time that there were 85 vacancies out of about 1,200 positions.

Virani’s statement also comes just a few months after a Federal Court justice issued a ruling directing the federal government to step up the pace of judicial appointments to address an “untenable” number of vacancies.

The federal government announced in March that it’s appealing that decision.

Virani’s letter to Chief Justice Wager attempted to address those criticisms. In it, the minister said that since becoming justice minister and attorney general in July 2023, his “top priority has been filling federal judicial vacancies.”

“I am proud that our government has appointed judges at a rate unprecedented in Canadian history; more than 740 judges since November 2015, including 113 since my appointment 10 months ago,” he wrote to Wagner. 

The federal government appoints judges to the superior courts and courts of appeal in each province, the Federal Court, the Tax Court and the Supreme Court.

There are currently 939 judges in office and another 256 supernumeraries — retired justices who now sit on the bench part time — with 57 vacancies.

Those vacancies persist, Virani said, because of internal factors such as retirements and judges being elevated to higher courts. 

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‘The system could work better and faster,’ says minister

Virani’s letter said that since the 2017 budget, the federal government has created 116 new judicial positions that “resulted in a significant and sudden increase in the number of judicial vacancies.”

“It is important to stress that several of the positions remaining to be filled are the result of our government’s work to increase the capacity of courts and support access to justice by funding new judicial positions,” he wrote. 

In the summer of 2016, Trudeau announced a new process for selecting federally appointed judges through non-partisan Judicial Advisory Committees (JACs). 

Wagner praised the new process in his 2023 letter, saying that “it would be unfortunate if the failure to improve the pace of federal judicial appointments … were to ultimately discredit this process.”

Virani’s letter says that to address that concern, he extended the length of time JACs sit from two to three years in September to give them more time to consider appointments. 

“Additional JAC meetings have been scheduled in jurisdictions where there is a significant number of candidates awaiting to be assessed,” he wrote. 

Virani also says in the letter that he has hired more staff and is working with the Privy Council Office to speed up security verifications for judicial candidates.

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In an interview with CBC Radio’s The House airing Saturday, Virani said his letter is “not a victory lap” but an update on “what I’ve done in my first 10 months in office.” 

“The system could work better and faster, there’s no doubt,” he told host Catherine Cullen.

“I’m doing everything in my power to ensure that the key pieces that I put in place, such as Superior Court level appointments, are being put in place at a faster rate.”

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