News / Vancouver

She rules: Women's rights leap ahead in new B.C. judge nominations

More women rise to bench after #MeToo year. Legal experts weigh in on why "changing the face of the judiciary" could also "lead to more substantive changes."

In a 2014 screen grab from the Supreme Court of Canada's livestream, West Coast LEAF lawyer Francesca Marzari argues for access to justice for low-income women. She was since appointed to the Supreme Court of B.C. on Dec. 19, 2017.

Supreme Court of Canada

In a 2014 screen grab from the Supreme Court of Canada's livestream, West Coast LEAF lawyer Francesca Marzari argues for access to justice for low-income women. She was since appointed to the Supreme Court of B.C. on Dec. 19, 2017.

Order in court, all rise.

A string of new judges named to B.C.'s Supreme and provincial courts before the New Year could shift women's rights in those courtrooms, according to legal experts.

The new appointments come in the wake of a year that saw the #metoo movement shine a light on sexual assault and harassment — crimes that often fail to find justice in court.

"I think it's changing the face of the judiciary, and that makes a difference," said Kasari Govender, West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF)'s executive director in a phone interview.

"When you're standing in front of a judge, being able to see the court may understand your experience, that they may come from a place you may have experienced, will help people believe in the justice system — which ultimately leads to a better-functioning system whatever side of a case they are on … It will also lead to more substantive changes to justice."

The most prominent of those appointments is Francesca Marzari to B.C.'s Supreme Court. She was former board chair of West Coast LEAF, a non-profit women's rights law firm, and has experience in constitutional law, human rights, and environmental law, areas rarely seen in appointments typically heavy on prosecutors and corporate lawyers. In 2014, she was pro-bono counsel for West Coast LEAF in a landmark Supreme Court of Canada intervention on access to justice.

Several others among the provincial appointments, Govender revealed, also did pro bono work for West Coast LEAF.

Members of West Coast LEAF’s legal team at the Supreme Court of Canada in 2014 while intervening in a landmark access-to-justice case. Pro bono counsel Francesca Marzari (centre right), and executive director Kasari Govender (right). Marzari was named a B.C. Supreme Court judge on Dec. 19, 2017.

COURTESY West Coast LEAF

Members of West Coast LEAF’s legal team at the Supreme Court of Canada in 2014 while intervening in a landmark access-to-justice case. Pro bono counsel Francesca Marzari (centre right), and executive director Kasari Govender (right). Marzari was named a B.C. Supreme Court judge on Dec. 19, 2017.

B.C.'s justice ministry appointed its own new provincil judges in the fall, including family lawyer Delaram Jahanii — who has experience in child protection, work as criminal and family duty counsel for the Legal Services Society, and volunteering on women's legal clinics — defense lawyer Michelle Daneliuk, Crown counsel Mariane Ruth Armstrong, and Monica McParland — a family lawyer.

Crown prosecutors Dawn Boblin and Andrea Ormiston were named Nov. 6. Ormiston formerly interned at the Native Law Centre of Canada focusing on "international rights of Indigenous peoples," the B.C. government stated Oct. 30.

According to the federal justice ministry, 100 judges appointed last year — more than any previous year. Half of them were women, 16 self-identified as a visible minority, LGBTQ or person with a disability, and four were Indigenous, the ministry stated Dec. 19.

For University of B.C. law professor Margot Young, increasing the diversity of the bar is essential.

"To have judges who worked in these areas, who have experiences in areas of law like family law that women have disproportionately have their legal issues in, makes a bench that is more representative and relevant," she said. "Certainly it's beyond debate that a gender inclusive bench at all levels is critically important.

"It's really great to see some family law experts going on the bench, because family law is an under-attended to area of law in the profession, yet it has such fundamental impacts to women."

A statue of Lady Justice balancing scales.

querbeet/Istockphoto

A statue of Lady Justice balancing scales.

The qualifications of some Canadian judges to preside over violence against women cases were put under scrutiny last year after the Canadian Judicial Council voted to remove judge Robin Camp.

The Federal Court judge in Alberta resigned over his handling of a 2014 sexual assault case in which he asking a rape survivor why she "couldn't just keep your knees together" and repeatedly calling her "the accused" before acquitting her alleged rapist.

"These cases undermine all our goals in the justice system," Govender said. "Whoever you're representing, we want people who have commited violent offenses to be held to account for them … but also survivors can see real accountability through a justice system they see as a viable means to seek redress."

According to Govender, in light of massive backlogs in court hearings because of a judge shortage, appointing anyone was urgently needed.

"Judges are being appointed, period, is a big thing," she said. "We have big gaps on both provincial and Superior Courts in terms of just numbers. The fact these seats are being filled … ultimately drives down costs — and they don't get cases thrown out because they took too long."

She emphasized that while B.C. has many exemplary judges, she hopes more education can be available on sexual assault and women's family law issues.

"If I had a wish for 2018, it would be able to see evidence that the judiciary is being educated on these issues and really does take them seriously," Govender noted.

More on Metronews.ca