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Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin takes pride in work on Indigenous rights as she retires

Canada's outgoing Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin takes part in a news conference in Ottawa, Ont., Dec. 15, 2017.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

On her final day as chief justice, Beverley McLachlin reflected on her nearly 18 years of leadership on the Supreme Court of Canada, taking special pride in her work on Indigenous rights.

In a rare news conference at the National Press Theatre, Chief Justice McLachlin spoke about her most challenging cases and the problems that Canadians continue to face in terms of access to justice.

"If I had to pick out something, I would say I'm proud of the work the court has done on the Indigenous files and in the development of a legal structure into which Indigenous rights can function and I've also been very honoured and felt very privileged to play a small role in the development of Charter rights and freedoms," she said.

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Opinion: Chief Justice McLachlin made the Supreme Court accessible to the people

During her time as chief justice, the court released several landmark decisions that clarified and sometimes expanded aboriginal rights. In a 2015 speech, Chief Justice McLachlin said Canada attempted to commit "cultural genocide" against aboriginals during the period of residential schools.

Chief Justice McLachlin is the first woman in Canada to hold the position of chief justice. The Alberta native rose through the ranks of British Columbia's judicial system before her appointment as a Justice of the Supreme Court in 1989.

Earlier this week, the Liberal government announced Supreme Court Justice Richard Wagner, 60, as her successor as chief justice. That gives Justice Wagner 15 years in the position before he reaches mandatory retirement.

Chief Justice McLachlin listed the court's 1998 response to government questions on Quebec secession as one of the court's most challenging files.

"I think it stood up very, very well both nationally and internationally, if I may say so," she said. "I know I shouldn't judge our own work."

One of the court's recent rulings that has reverberated in Canada's legal system has been the 2016 Jordan decision, which set timelines for criminal trials in an effort to curb lengthy delays. In practice, more than 200 criminal cases have been thrown out due to unreasonable delays. This has prompted strong criticism from victims' families as they watch alleged criminals walk free.

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Chief Justice McLachlin declined to comment directly on the Jordan decision or respond to its critics, but said the broader issue of access to justice is something that she intends to pursue.

"We have a problem with access to justice, which is a broad term that covers delays, costs, anything that prevents people from getting ready access to justice," she said. She noted that since the Jordan case, federal and provincial justice officials and judges have all been working to improve the system and reduce delays.

"There's much being done and there's more we can do," she said. "I'm hoping that when I retire, I can continue in some way, to push this project of access to justice and making justice more accessible to all women, men and children in Canada."

The outgoing chief justice said the courts have come a long way in dealing with mental-health issues, but more work is needed in that area as well.

"Just pushing these people through the revolving door of the prisons – in and out, in and out, back on the street, reoffending because of their illness – is not good for them and it's not good for society and there's an increasing recognition that we have to find other ways to deal with this considerable problem of mental health in the justice system," she said.

In a speech earlier this year, Chief Justice McLachlin waded into the national debate on sexual-assault trials, stating that "no one has the right to a particular verdict but only to a fair trial on the evidence."

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When asked about the issue Friday, she said high-profile cases in which a court mishandles a sexual-assault case do not reflect common practice.

"We've done a lot on judicial education in this area," she said. "Sadly there's the odd case which has shown some regrettable problems, but you should remember that thousands of sexual assault trials are held in Canada every year and if there is one that goes wrong, we should not judge the whole system by that."

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