Criminal Law

Supreme Court Chief Justice McLachlin will retire, legacy will endure


OTTAWA — Beverley McLachlin is stepping down as Supreme Court chief justice in mid-December.

McLachlin is the first woman to hold the top job on the high court, and she is also Canada's longest-serving chief justice.

She was sworn in as a justice of the Supreme Court in 1989, and was appointed chief justice 11 years later.

Federally appointed judges can sit until age 75, and McLachlin's mandatory retirement date is Sept. 7, 2018.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau congratulated McLachlin on her coming retirement, saying her judicial accomplishments are unparalleled in Canadian history.

Trudeau says she has been a judicial leader and trailblazer for almost four decades, and that Canadians owe her an immense debt.

In an interview with, Toronto criminal lawyer Jill Presser says Canada is losing a judicial giantess with McLachlin's retirement.

“For Canadian society, and women in particular, her contributions cannot be overstated,” she says.

“Chief Justice McLachlin was the third woman to join the Supreme Court of Canada when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney gave her the nod in 1989 (after Justices Bertha Wilson and Claire l'Heureux-Dube.) She was our first woman chief justice when asked to take the helm by Prime Minister Jean Chretien in 2000.”

Presser, principal of Presser Barristers, notes McLachlin has not always advanced the feminist agenda as articulated by Women's rights activists, pointing to the decision in R. v. Seaboyer, in which she wrote for the majority, striking down the rape-shield law.

“She has been a fair-minded judge, defying political pigeon-holing, of finest intellect and sensibility,” she says. “The chief justice has a strong commitment to the Charter and civil liberties while being committed to the advancement and protection of the vulnerable.”

Presser describes McLachlin as fearless in her judicial decision-making, never eschewing the correct outcome even when that required striking down legislation or making unpopular decisions.

“And she is courageous in her role as the lead jurist of Canada,” she says. “For example, she publicly acknowledged that this country committed cultural genocide against its indigenous peoples and she defended herself and her role publicly in a contretemps with then prime minister Stephen Harper.”

So although the chief justice never advanced any "agenda" other than justice, she has been an important and inspirational beacon for Canadian women, Presser says.

“The legal profession is notoriously and unfortunately inhospitable to women. We have trouble retaining women in the law. And yet, Chief Justice McLachlin not only survived as a jurist, she thrived,” she says. “She serves as a brilliant example of leadership and excellence by a Canadian woman at the highest and most important level of our society.

“She will be sorely missed, but her legacy and ground-breaking example live on.”

– With files from

© 2017 The Canadian Press

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