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Ottawa appoints four new judges as pressure mounts to help clogged courts

Minister of Justice and Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould answers a question during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, on April 11, 2017.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould appointed four more judges on Wednesday, making a small dent in the near-record vacancy list of 59, as pressure mounts on Ottawa to help clogged courts meet new deadlines for criminal trials.

The appointments reflect the government's continuing emphasis on making the federal bench more diverse, and include a Japanese-Canadian whose father was interned during the Second World War.

They come as Ottawa and the provinces prepare for an emergency meeting of justice ministers scheduled for April 28 on the issue of court delays. Since a Supreme Court of Canada ruling last July setting time limits for criminal proceedings (18 months in Provincial Court, 30 months in Superior Court), judges have thrown out murder charges against three men in separate cases in Alberta, Ontario and, last week, Quebec. All three cases are being appealed. Lawyers across the country have brought more than 1,000 applications to dismiss cases over delay. And Ms. Wilson-Raybould has appointed just 12 judges since October, when she announced a plan to revamp the appointment process.

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The group of four judges – two in Ontario and two in British Columbia – mark the Liberal government's first set of judicial appointments in which men outnumbered women (in this case, three to one). In total, the government has appointed 30 women and 21 men as judges since it came to power nearly a year and a half ago. By comparison, under the previous government, 30 per cent of judicial appointments were women, as were 30 per cent of applicants.

Just one of the three men appointed Tuesday, Justice John Hunter of Vancouver, is a white male, and the government suggested he did not come from an advantaged background, describing him in a brief biography as the first member of his family to graduate from university. He was appointed to the province's highest court, its Court of Appeal, straight from private practice in a variety of areas, including commercial, administrative, constitutional and aboriginal law.

Of the other three appointments, Justice Andrew Mayer, general counsel for the Prince Rupert Port Authority, joins the B.C. Supreme Court; his biography describes him as Indo-Canadian. Justice Shaun Nakatsuru, promoted to the Ontario Superior Court from Provincial Court, is a Japanese Canadian whose father was interned during the Second World War, according to the government biography. Justice Robyn Bell, the lone woman appointed, will join the Ontario Superior Court in Ottawa.

Earlier on Wednesday, two Conservative senators published an open letter to Ms. Wilson-Raybould (and Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard) accusing her of being "preoccupied" with the selection process for judges, while Canadians lose confidence in the justice system.

Senators Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu and Jean-Guy Dagenais, both from Quebec, spoke in apocalyptic terms of a threat to communities – likening the delay problem to a tsunami or nuclear bomb – and said Ms. Wilson-Raybould should treat it as an emergency by passing legislation that would enable Quebec to exempt itself from court rulings dismissing criminal charges. The Parti Québécois made a similar demand last week that Mr. Couillard use the Charter's notwithstanding clause. The Premier rejected the call as a "constitutional nuclear bomb."

"How can a justice minister ignore such a major crisis, which clearly jeopardizes the safety of our communities by releasing dangerous offenders who have not been brought to trial?" the two senators said in their letter.

"When a dam risks wiping out an entire village and its population, we don't spend weeks and months consulting, we take action."

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In an e-mail to The Globe and Mail, Ms. Wilson-Raybould said that, "Using the notwithstanding clause is not a substantive solution" to the problem of delay.

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