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Governor-General David Johnston usually speaks about our smart and caring nation, but the former law school dean has attracted notice for a strong speech in which he characterized the legal profession as uncaring.

Mr. Johnston even went beyond what a law school dean would do, observers say. He took lawyers to task, telling them they are breaking their social contract with the public through unacceptable delays, especially in Ontario, where he said the court system has been slowed by unproductive appearances and some of the longest court delays in the country.

"We enjoy a monopoly to practise law. In return, we are duty-bound to serve our clients competently, to improve justice and to continuously create the good. That's the deal," Mr. Johnston said.

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He also condemned lawyers, especially those in the United States, over their role in the economic collapse.

"How many lawyers 'papered' the deals that involved fraudulent statements of assets, liabilities, income and valuations," he asked.

He called on lawyers and justices to "heal" themselves.

The Governor-General made his statements as the keynote speaker at the Canadian Bar Association's annual meeting in Halifax on the weekend.

His office would not comment on the speech. Governor-general usually avoid controversy.

But Liberal justice critic Irwin Cotler, who was a colleague of Mr. Johnston at McGill University's law school, said he is not surprised.

"He has a long understanding of the legal profession and law," Mr. Cotler said. "He sees lawyers as being trustees of the public ... lawyers have got to contribute to the wealth of the human condition and not through their work diminish it."

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Mr. Cotler said the Governor-General has a "very strong ethical sensibility" that "finds expression in whatever he does."

"Few people are better placed to comment on this than David Johnston," he said.

NDP justice critic Joe Comartin, however, noted that the Governor-General's statements were "more forceful normally than one would have expected." He said even a law school dean would not go so far.

Mr. Johnston was dean of law at the University of Western Ontario in London.

However, Mr. Comartin said that more important were Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin's remarks to the convention in which she cited her concerns regarding access to justice across the country. Mr. Comartin said her stature and prominence in the legal community simply elevate her remarks to a different level than those of the Governor General.

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