For the first time in Canada, women outnumber men among applicants for federally appointed courts, reflecting both a demographic evolution in the legal profession and a push by the Liberal government to create a more diverse judiciary.
The number of female appointments has spiked during the first three years that the Liberals have been in office. In the past year, 54 per cent of the 252 applicants have been women, new statistics from the Office of the Commissioner for Federal Judicial Affairs show. They were 43 per cent the year before. Taking both years together, women make up a majority of the appointments.
Ray Adlington, president of the Canadian Bar Association, representing 36,000 lawyers and judges, called the numbers of women applicants “a phenomenally good news story. Women are now applying to be judges at a rate that is reflective of their presence in their profession.” More women than men have been graduating from Canadian law schools for two decades, he said.
Federal data released this week do not show whether the change reflects men applying less or women embracing the opportunity provided by Ottawa. Women made up 27 of 37 appointments in the first six months of this year.
The Liberals have consistently appointed women out of proportion to their numbers in the applicant pool. This past year, screening committees assessed 629 candidates, of whom 45 per cent were women. The assessment process includes candidates who applied the previous year. Women made up 58 per cent of the government’s new appointees − 46 of 79. Those numbers do not include elevations to higher courts. Last year, women accounted for half of the 74 appointments and 42 per cent of the assessed candidates.
During the 10 years of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, between 2006 and 2015, women made up just 30 per cent of applicants to federally appointed courts (such as superior courts of provinces, the Federal Court of Canada, the Tax Court and the Supreme Court) and received 30 per cent of appointments.
Brenda Noble, a family-law lawyer in Saint John, N.B., said she suspects that the higher proportion of female applicants reflects the Liberal government’s encouragement of women thus far. “The federal government has made it pretty clear they’re giving priority to female appointments.”
In the past, she said, “a lot of women felt we had a strike against us, and we were not likely to be considered.” She said she does not support quotas, but would like to think the government is giving a “slight edge” to strong female applicants, to boost the presence of women on the bench − now at 41 per cent of the 880 full-time federal judges.
Applicants for the federal bench are screened by one of 17 judicial advisory committees in their region; the committees are non-partisan. Two years ago, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould disbanded all 17 committees, adjusted the composition and named new members. She stressed the importance of diversity, introducing special training for members in “unconscious bias.”
In a new questionnaire, applicants are asked how their experiences have given them insight into diversity. (Justice Susan Wong of the Tax Court of Canada, appointed in June, spoke of her life as the first Canadian-born child of Chinese immigrants. Justice Barbara Norell, appointed to the B.C. Supreme Court in March, wrote about being a working mother.) And for the first time, the government publishes detailed data annually on the background of applicants and appointees. This year, the government appointed three who are Indigenous, seven from visible minorities, 11 from ethnic minorities, two disabled persons and six who define themselves as LGBTQ2.
“When we modernized the judicial-appointment process in October, 2016, one of our goals was to make that process more welcoming to all applicants,” Ms. Wilson-Raybould said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail. “The increase in the number of women applying is a sign that the process is working. It is also a reflection of the changing face of the legal profession.” She said her goal is “always to find the most meritorious jurist for the available vacancy.”
The committees may highly recommend, recommend or not recommend. (Under the Conservatives, there was no highly recommended category.) The federal Justice Minister may choose from the recommended or highly recommended pools.
Geoffrey Cowper, a senior litigator in Vancouver, applauded the new numbers.
“In many workplaces, you find that there’s a critical point at which there’s enough diversity that people don’t see themselves as being in any way out of step with the culture they’re walking into. And I think that’s where we’re at on the federal bench,” he said in an interview.