We chat with Richard Wagner


Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, Richard Wagner. Photo: Radio-Canada

For the second time in history, the justices of the Supreme Court of Canada left Ottawa last week to meet with high school students, law students from Laval University, their professors and the public in general. Richard Wagner draws a balance sheet of “very great success”. In the wake of this visit to Quebec, Droit-inc met with the chief judge.

How do you learn to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada?

There is no a miraculous recipe. There is no school for judges. We learn from our past experiences.

Your first priority when you were appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada in 2017 was access to justice and transparency. Do you think it’s mission accomplished or that there is still a long way to go?

The path remains to be refined. You can’t settle in a day. Access to justice encompasses several aspects, including access to information in order to increase awareness of the law and the roles of the courts. It’s very difficult to appreciate something that you don’t know.

What new things have you brought since becoming Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada?

I’m not alone. With my beautiful team, we have the will and we are making the effort to make the court more accessible, more transparent. Our Cause in Brief initiative is a great success. In one page, we summarize a decision of the Supreme Court which can take 40 in reality. The court’s proceedings conference and the annual review are other means that are part of this desire for transparency.

Are you worried when you see acts like what we experienced last year in Ottawa where the rules of law are flouted? People who aren’t afraid of the police or people who shy away from the consequences of their actions even though they know it’s going to end in charges in a courthouse?

Any such situation must be reported. A situation where a person takes the law into his own hands is dangerous for freedom.

The importance of democracy in Canada?

It is fundamental to have a strong democracy and the independence of judges. We have the largest impartial and independent judiciary in the world. We export our expertise. Six months before the war, we were in Ukraine, to train judges.

We know the Supreme Court of the United States well, more than that of Canada. What’s the big difference?

Of course, we will never be so polarized. We are so different from each other.

You often mentioned it even when you were on the bench in Superior Court, how the media had an important role, why?

The judgment must be explained by the traditional media. For 15-20 years, social media has taken up a lot of space and the content is not always complete, let’s put it this way.

How will courts adjust to technology? We are talking about algorithms that could facilitate the work of judges or artificial intelligence in courthouses.

There are good and bad sides to technology. Videoconferencing, which makes it possible to proceed even if people are not physically present in the yard, is a tool that will remain. I hope we won’t go back.

You have often said that justice has been the poor relation. The Jordan ruling in 2016 changed that. Suddenly, everyone was watching the Supreme Court of Canada decision. The final decision was not easy, 5 for against 4 against? Does dissent matter?

I hope so. I myself was against at the beginning and I rallied since. That’s the law, you have to accept the majority. It was a wake-up call. Governments have seen the urgency to invest. They did, but there is still work to be done. Areas are underpaid, such as legal aid, for example.

What advice would you give to a young lawyer appearing before the Supreme Court of Canada, you who did so when you were just starting out as a lawyer?

To be well prepared. It’s very professional and very well done. It’s true that it’s intimidating, but for me it was a most pleasant experience when I pleaded in the Supreme Court.

30% of people who go to court do so representing themselves. Is there a message here that should be addressed to lawyers, because it is a sign that people have little or no confidence in a lawyer to represent them?

An ideal world would be for everyone to be represented by a lawyer. But some people prefer to be alone for all sorts of reasons, because that person can’t afford a lawyer or because they feel they are better off alone. Lawyers must review the means of invoicing.

Could pro bono work then be put forward more?

Pro bono work is part of the solution. Not all lawyers can do pro bono, but yes if the lawyer can do it I strongly encourage him to do so.

You are the son of a great lawyer, judge and Minister of Justice under Jean Lesage, Claude Wagner, who died at the age of 54. You were barely 22 years old. What was your father’s influence?

My father is a man of justice who sacrificed his life for public service. I’ve always been impressed by that. He influenced me a lot.

Still on the aspect of the family, you have two children who are lawyers, your wife is a judge, how do you disconnect and not speak straight during family gatherings?

It’s not easy, but we find a way. Everyone knows the limits because cases could one day end up before the Supreme Court.

How does a chief judge find a way to stall?

We have big weeks. You see I come from Halifax to meet with judges. But you have to get off the hook and sport is a good way. When I find the time, I play tennis. But my job is stimulating and the day when I will no longer be passionate when I arrive in the morning at the office, I will retire.


The Right Honorable Justice Richard Wagner was a lawyer for 25 years before being appointed to the Superior Court in 2004. He was then promoted to the Court of Appeal in 2011. A stint of only one year, because in 2012 , he entered the Supreme Court of Canada. He can remain a judge until the age of 75.

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We chat with Richard Wagner

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