Nova Scotia Appeal Court to take its act on the road

By Terry Davidson

Law360 Canada (May 29, 2023, 3:10 PM EDT) -- As part of an ongoing push towards greater transparency, a plan is in the works to have Nova Scotia’s Court of Appeal sit in other parts of the province, said Chief Justice Michael Wood during the judiciary’s first-ever state of the courts address.

The inaugural event, held on May 26, featured speeches by Chief Justice Wood, who is also chief of the Appeal Court, Supreme Court Chief Justice Deborah Smith and Provincial Court Chief Judge Pamela Williams.

Each described the role of their court, as well as challenges they face — including the provincial court’s current problem of having an insufficient number of judges to deal with a case backlog caused by the COVID-19 shutdowns.

Chief Justice Michael Wood

Chief Justice Michael Wood

During his remarks, Chief Justice Wood spoke of plans to one day have his Halifax-based Appeal Court take its act on the road.

First stop: Cape Breton Island.

“The Court of Appeal has always held its hearings in Halifax. However, we believe it is time to consider sitting in other parts of the province,” he said. “This would give lawyers and members of the public in those communities an opportunity to experience appeal hearings in person. Planning is currently underway for a pilot project to have the Court sit outside of Halifax. It is anticipated this will be in Sydney in the fall of 2024.”

This comes after the Supreme Court of Canada made history in 2019 by leaving Ottawa and travelling to Manitoba — the first time ever that the high court sat outside the nation’s capital. The court would then go on to sit in Quebec City in 2022.  

As he has done before, Chief Justice Wood spoke of how the pandemic forced Nova Scotia’s Appeal Court – as it did others – to modernize through virtual technology.

“The silver lining to the pandemic was the implementation of virtual hearings and expanding our capabilities to work with electronic documents,” he said. “These new skills and technologies will assist us as we strive to continue improving the efficiency and accessibility of appeal proceedings in Nova Scotia.”

He also spoke of why a state of the courts address was needed.

“Today’s event is part of the … judiciary’s ongoing efforts to inform the public about our work,” he said. “As the third branch of government, an independent judiciary has an important role to play in our province. We believe it is important to periodically report to Nova Scotians concerning our activities.”

Chief Judge Pamela Williams

Chief Judge Pamela Williams

Of the three judges, it was provincial court Chief Judge Williams who touched on what may be the most pressing problem currently faced by Nova Scotia’s judiciary: an “ongoing backlog” of criminal cases in her court.

“It has significant impact on the people we serve; it has significant impact on the members of the public and the rest of the system,” she said. “There is increasing pressure to book more cases; hear more matters; deliver more decisions; judges sitting more days. And what does that result in? More work in the evenings and [on] weekends.”

With this, she expressed concern for the well-being of her judges.

The court recently saw the retirement of two judges, while one other is on an extended leave. 

Like the others, Supreme Court Chief Justice Smith spoke about the importance of addressing the public.  

“Citizens require a sound and properly functioning judicial system to ensure that disputes are fairly arbitrated and that the rule of law is maintained. It is in everyone’s best interests that the courts in this province and in this country be strong. That’s why a State of the Courts address is important. It’s a chance for all of us to better understand the courts that serve you.”

Chief Justice Deborah Smith

Chief Justice Deborah Smith

But the event didn’t come easily. There were varying degrees of hesitancy on the part of all three judges to speak publicly this way, outside their normal practice of communicating strictly through the cases they try.

“I have to be honest — I wasn’t big on the idea,” said Chief Justice Smith during her speech. “For years,” she said, judiciary communications director Jennifer Stairs had been “encouraging us to hold a State of the Courts address.”  

Stairs, who has been comms director since 2016, told Law360 Canada it was about seizing the moment.

“We saw this as an opportunity to remind the public and others about the judiciary and the courts’ role as the third branch of government, what that means and why it is important to them.”

The hesitancy on the part of the three judges, she said, was largely based on the strict constraints judges are under when it comes to commenting publicly.

“It’s a fine line they are walking in terms of what they are out there speaking about,” she said. “They certainly can’t be out there looking like they are advocating for or lobbying for any sort of thing. It makes it difficult for them to talk about the environment in which they work. But it is extremely important that they are talking about how the courts work and helping the public to understand the role of the judges and the role of the courts.”

Stairs said the subject of hosting a state of the courts address came up before the pandemic hit, during the reign of Chief Justice Wood’s predecessor, Michael MacDonald, who retired from the bench in 2019.

“It took a long time to get us to a place where … we could have a whole bunch of people in a room safely again and [where] everyone was comfortable doing that, and also to have them on board to speak about what’s going on in their courts. Because we don’t always see that. Judges typically speak on the record and through their judgments. You don’t see them out speaking to the public as often as we may like.”

When asked what drove her to keep pushing the judges to do the address, Stairs said she was influenced by Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Richard Wagner’s recent efforts in helping the public better understand how his court works.

In late 2022, Chief Justice Wagner announced the rollout of a revamped Supreme Court communications process, which makes the court’s oral judements more accessible through news releases and video links.

And earlier this year, during his annual address to the Canadian Bar Association, he announced that the Canadian Judicial Council, of which he is chair, was again expanding public outreach efforts, which included a conference in Ottawa that brought together judges and court communications officials from across the country.

Stairs also pointed to inspiration coming from Ontario’s courts, which hold an Opening of the Courts ceremony every year.

In his speech, Chief Justice Wood said the State of the Courts address falls in line with other judiciary initiatives to promote access and transparency: a strong social media presence; student tours; the publishing of “plain language materials” to help people understand the legal system.

He also pointed to the Digital Task Force, launched during the pandemic, and the African Nova Scotian Access to Justice Judicial Committee. (He plays a leadership role in both.)

Another case in point: In early May, Nova Scotia’s courts launched a new, more publicly accessible website. The purpose, Chief Justice Wood said at the time, to “provide people information that will help them in whatever their business is with the courts … [and] provide helpful information about what the courts are doing.”

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