International Judicial Monitor
Published by the International Judicial Academy, Washington, D.C., with assistance from the
American Society of International Law

Summer 2016 Issue

Justice In Profile


Beverly McLachlin, Canada
Chief Justice, Supreme Court of Canada

Ronny Abraham

By: Jason K. Everett, Staff Writer, International Judicial Monitor

Beverly McLachlin currently serves as the 17th Chief Justice of Canada.  She is the first woman to hold this esteemed role and also the longest serving Chief Justice in Canadian history.

Born in Pincher Creek, Alberta to parents of German descent, McLachlin received her BA, MA, and LLB from the University of Alberta.  During her tenure as an LLB student, McLachlin earned the gold medal as top student and served as Editor-in-Chief of the Alberta Law Review.  Following graduation, McLachlin was admitted to the Bar of Alberta in 1969 and to the Bar of British Columbia in 1971.  Before her foray into service as a judge, McLachlin practiced law from 1969 until 1975 and also taught from 1974 to 1981 at the University of British Columbia.

McLachlin was appointed to the County Court of Vancouver in 1980, a selection quickly followed by her appointment to the Supreme Court of British Columbia.  Five years later, in 1985, she was appointed to the British Columbia Court of Appeal where she served for three years until her installation as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of British Columbia.  Within one year McLachlin rose within the robed ranks once again and was appointed as a Puisne Justice to the Supreme Court of Canada (March 30, 1989) and was made Chief Justice of Canada less than one year later, in January of 2000.

Notably, McLachlin stepped in to perform the duties of the Governor General, the administrator of Canada, when Governor General Adrienne Clarkson was hospitalized for surgery in July, 2005.  During her brief time in this position she granted royal assent to the Civil Marriage Act, essentially legalizing same-sex marriage in Canada.  When Governor General Clarkson returned to good health in late July McLachlin relinquished the role.

In addition to the honor of serving as Chief Justice of Canada, McLachlin is the Chairperson of the Canadian Judicial Council, serves on the Advisory Council of the Order of Canada, as well as on the Board of Governors of the National Judicial Institute.  She is also a member of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada (a group of personal consultants on state and constitutional affairs).  In 2008 she was made a Commander of the Legion of Honor by the Government of France and in December 2006 she was appointed Commander of the Venerable Order of Saint John.

In her judicial role she believes her function is one that requires “conscious objectivity.”  In describing this, she stated:


What you have to try to do as a judge, whether you’re on charter issues or any other issue, is by an act of the imagination, put yourself in the shoes of the different parties, and think about how it looks from their perspective, and really think about it, not just give it lip service. 

As a judge, and I’ve been a judge for a long time, I have always resolved to just try to judge the issues as honestly as I can, and not to think about things in too strategic a manner. My job is simply to listen to what the parties have to say, and to do my best to understand the position, the ramifications of deciding one way or the other, to think about what’s best for Canadian society on this particular problem that’s before us, and give it my best judgment after listening to, also, my eight other colleagues. So there’s a consensual element there.

McLachlin has further stated that she thinks “the court belongs to the Canadian people and [as such] it should reflect the Canadian people.”  Her judgment seems to be a feat of neutral evaluation of competing positions, consciously free of passion or perspective.

However, despite her current reputation for machine-like neutrality, McLachlin was characterized as a judge with libertarian leanings during her early years on the bench.  This characterization emerged following her dissent in the case of R. v. Keegstra (upholding the Criminal Code provision prohibiting the willful promotion of hatred against an identifiable group as constitutional under the freedom of expression provision in section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms). Her position was that the section of the Code in question was unconstitutional and infringed upon the guarantee of freedom of expression.  This characterization was strengthened in R. v. Zundel (striking down the provision in the Criminal Code that prohibited the publication of false information or news). McLachlin, writing for the court, conveyed the position that such a prohibition violated the freedom of expression provision under the aforementioned section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter. McLachlin noted that while the defendant’s actions “misrepresented the work of historians, misquoted witnesses, fabricated evidence, and cited non-existing authorities” it was still protected speech under the Charter regardless of how many may disagree with its content.

Presently, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin still serves of the bench, further cementing her title as “Longest Serving Chief Justice in Canadian History.”

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© 2016 – The International Judicial Academy
with assistance from the American Society of International Law.

Editor: James G. Apple.
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