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Bill Sundhu a barrister and solicitor in Kamloops, B.C. at the Old Court House on Friday March 13, 2012. (Jeff Bassett for the Globe and Mail)
Bill Sundhu a barrister and solicitor in Kamloops, B.C. at the Old Court House on Friday March 13, 2012. (Jeff Bassett for the Globe and Mail)

JUDGES

Minority lawyers in Canada push for a less white bench Add to ...

Minority lawyers, chafing at an overwhelming number of white appointees to federal judgeships, are mobilizing to press for a more transparent appointment process.

They accuse the government of concealing its poor record of minority appointments behind an intolerably opaque process.

“The demographics of the bench must be tracked and reported – who applies, and gets appointed and who makes the decisions,” the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers said in a statement Friday.

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“Almost every day that we are in court, we see the lack of minority representation staring back at us,” the statement said. “Despite repeated calls for a judiciary that reflects the communities it services, our federal government has yet to respond.”

The outcry follows a Globe and Mail review of superior court appointments over the past three and a half years. It revealed that of 100 new judges in provinces across the country, 98 were white.

Coming on the 30th anniversary of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms – a document that enshrines the rights of equality and diversity – the figures suggest that a central institution responsible for upholding and interpreting the country's laws is seriously lacking in diversity.

To obtain a glimpse of recent patterns, The Globe used Internet searches and culled information from judicial sources and law firms where judicial appointees worked. The Globe found two exceptions to the pattern – both Métis judges appointed in B.C. and Nova Scotia.

The FACL statement, prepared by directors Paul Jonathan Saguil and Immanuel Lanzaderas, noted that 14.6 per cent of B.C.’s legal profession and 9.6 per cent of Alberta lawyers are visible minorities. “Clearly, the federal bench does not even approach the diversity in the profession, let alone in the wider community,” they said.

The writers derided those who claim that opening the judiciary to diverse communities would mean appointing “less meritorious” candidates. They said the line of argument is hard to swallow, in light of an appointment process that gives the government enormous flexibility to appoint whomever it chooses.

“The opaque and highly politicized process currently in place does little to ensure that the best lawyers, based on merit, are appointed to the bench,” the statement said. “Moreover, there is nothing contradictory about diversity and merit.”

It warned that the status quo will lead to an erosion in public confidence in the justice system – particularly in minority communities.

William Sundhu, a Canadian-born Sikh and former B.C. Provincial Court judge who has studied minority representation on the bench, said he received a flood of calls and e-mails after the Globe story from aboriginal lawyers and members of visible minorities all keen to see judges appointed who reflect the face of their communities.

“They want to believe the country and its judicial system will be truly based on fairness and that it will be better for their children,” Mr. Sundhu said. “One aboriginal lawyer was quite emotional in speaking of his experience of the courts.”

The theme they shared was that the issue is tremendously important, “and has been overlooked for too long,” Mr. Sundhu said. “People were emotional about the importance of the issue because they have felt excluded, or less understood or valued, in their experience of the system and courts.”

Mr. Saguil, a lawyer at Stockwoods LLP, said in an interview that the social media have been alive with comments and criticisms about the shortcomings of the federal appointment process.

“I think it’s safe to say that everyone’s pretty disappointed in this dismal state of affairs,” he said. Mr. Saguil said that FACL is approaching other minority bar associations in hopes of creating a coalition that can approach the federal government with proposals to reform the judicial appointment process.

“From my perspective, this record is particularly interesting considering the pandering that the Conservative government has done towards minority groups, although I understand that this legacy carries over from previous Liberal governments as well,” Mr. Saguil said.

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