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The Supreme Court of Canada is considering taking its show on the road and holding hearings outside of Ottawa for the first time since it was created in 1875, as the court seeks to make itself better understood to the country.

Chief Justice Richard Wagner has publicly expressed concerns that people in many countries outside of Canada are losing their respect for democratic institutions and values. The Supreme Court, he says, must not take for granted the respect of Canadians, especially as the court’s coverage by the established news media shrinks and strong views about the justice system are shared on social media.

“The idea is to be close to the people,” he explained in an interview this month, on why the court is looking at sitting outside of Ottawa for “one or two” days of hearings. If it proves useful, the court would make it an annual event, he said.

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Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Richard Wagner speaks during the welcoming ceremony for Judge Sheilah Martin in Ottawa in March.

Justin Tang

“It’s all in line with our policy to be present in each province, to make sure that every citizen feels that the Supreme Court is there for them. And to give the chance to those people who cannot be in Ottawa, to look at how it’s done. How the arguments are made. How the judges are doing their thing.”

Peter Russell, a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto’s political science department, said the move would echo the centuries-old British tradition of itinerant courts. “The judges were on assizes to different towns to show the people justice. [...] It was also a way of laying down the law for a king who wasn’t entirely sure he had the loyalty of his subjects. It strengthened the sinews of the court system.”

If the idea goes ahead, Winnipeg would be the first location because it will be host to an annual conference of Canadian appeal-court judges in September, 2019, and the Supreme Court is holding its annual “retreat” there so it can meet the appeal-court judges.

Chief Justice Wagner cited the top courts of British Columbia and Quebec, which have already begun visiting small communities to hold hearings. He also pointed to Britain’s Supreme Court, which has sat outside of London twice – in Belfast in April and in Edinburgh last June. Next year, it hopes to sit in Wales.

In 2014, B.C.’s appeal court announced that for cases originating in Kamloops, Kelowna or Salmon Arm, its hearings would be held in Kelowna or Kamloops, unless those involved in the case requested a Vancouver hearing. It also said it would go to Prince George if asked.

B.C. appeal court Chief Justice Robert Bauman says he shares Chief Justice Wagner’s concern that public respect for the justice system will erode. “People are questioning institutions and their legitimacy all the time,” he said in an interview. “And so it’s our duty to reach out and say, ‘this is who we are, this is how we work. This is why we decide issues the way we decide them.’ To demonstrate to the public and earn their trust and confidence.”

Last year, Quebec’s Court of Appeal held hearings in Rivière-du-Loup. The year before, it sat in Trois-Rivières. The court works with the local legal community to pick two cases – a criminal case and one other – that it thinks the public will find interesting.

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“Criminal law is the draw,” Chief Justice Nicole Duval Hesler of the Quebec Court of Appeal said in an interview. “Everything else people seem to think is pretty boring.”

Before the judges sit, a judge who is not part of the hearing explains the case and the role of an appeal court to the audience in the courtroom.

“We explain that we need an error to be able to intervene. It’s not a second kick at the can,” Chief Justice Duval Hesler said. “We really explain the process to people so they better understand the right of appeal, better understand that the first judge, a lot of deference is due to his or her findings, particularly findings of fact. We try and keep it really like a conversation with neighbours.”

The judges also take questions afterward about the process and do media interviews.

Both she and Chief Justice Bauman said the judges benefit from the experience, too.

“It brings us back to reality,” she said. “It avoids the ivory tower syndrome.”

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