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Wednesday, December 29, 1999

Supreme Court needs to improve PR, LeBel says
Newest appointee: Canadians puzzled by some decisions, judge says
Janice Tibbetts
Southam News

Jacques Boissinot, The Canadian Press
Justice Louis LeBel

OTTAWA - The traditionally silent judiciary has to make "more of an effort" to solve a growing public relations problem with Canadians, says Justice Louis LeBel, the newest appointee to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Judge LeBel, named last week to fill a Quebec vacancy on the court, said yesterday that one of his objectives is to help bridge a communications gap that is leaving Canadians puzzled about the meaning of decisions on some of the most pressing issues of the day.

"I will have to look at ways to improve that," said Judge LeBel, a Quebec Court of Appeal judge who takes his seat on the Supreme Court at the start of the winter term on Jan. 17.

"I don't know how Chief Justice [Beverley] McLachlin would approach that, but throughout the judiciary, there's broad agreement of the need for better communications."

Judge McLachlin, who replaces retiring Chief Justice Antonio Lamer in the new year, has also hinted she intends to initiate a new era of openness on the Supreme Court so that Canadians can learn more about the institution and judges who shape the laws of the land.

Judge LeBel, in an interview yesterday from his Quebec City home in which he touched on everything from judicial activism to the problems facing the court in the new millennium, asserted that judges cannot operate in a vacuum and must take into account how their rulings affect society.

"I think a judge certainly should try to understand the effects of a particular decision and try to fashion their remedy but within the limits of the law. It's a fine balance to strike, but it's there," said Judge LeBel, whose noteworthy judgments include a 1993 ruling in which he upheld a federal law banning tobacco advertising.

His reluctance to override the will of elected politicians is a quality he shares with Judge McLachlin, who is considered to be one of the most pragmatic and conservative members of a liberal court that is under increasing attack for being too aggressive in striking down the laws of elected legislators.

The court came under particularly harsh fire after a September ruling that sparked violence between native and non-native fishermen on the East Coast by allowing aboriginals to fish without licences, even in the off-season.

The soft-spoken Judge LeBel, 61, has been described by the Quebec legal community as a cautious and conservative judge who tends to defer to politicians, qualities that legal analysts believe may have been a factor in his appointment.

Although Judge LeBel acknowledged he is viewed as a mildly conservative judge, he asserts that he champions broad interpretation of the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which ended Parliamentary supremacy over laws by giving judges the power to interpret individual rights.

But he cautioned that judges should still use caution in being too quick to change Canadian law.

"I think it will come down to finding a balance in ensuring there is legal change, but also keeping some foreseeability and stability within the Canadian legal system," he said.

Judge LeBel, a former labour lawyer and member of the federal and Quebec Liberal parties, refused to be pigeonholed on either end of the Supreme Court bench, saying he hopes his decisions are based on common sense rather than his personal beliefs.

For example, he is known as an anti-abortionist who, in 1989, issued a landmark ruling that prevented Chantal Daigle from obtaining an abortion against her boyfriend's wishes. The decision was later overturned in the Supreme Court of Canada.

"The Supreme Court of Canada represents a body of law that I'm bound to apply," he said. "My personal view would be irrelevant."

He acknowledged that the prickly question of the rights of the unborn could resurface in the court in the next five years or so when it is expected to start hearing the first of numerous complicated cases involving reproductive technologies.

He declined to say where he stands on the issue, saying he wants to avoid taking a position ahead of time.

"I think those are complex issues and the only thing I can tell you is that I'll have to look at them.

"You know, I've heard cases for 15 years and one thing I have learned is that quite often in the courtroom, a lawyer brings up a new point or a new argument and then your understanding of the matter, your first conclusions, change completely. You also have the impact of the give and take between colleagues."


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