The first woman Chief Judge of the BC Provincial Court

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This week eNews has featured some of the women whose appointments to the Provincial Court of British Columbia were milestones in the province’s history. Today, on the first International Day of Women Judges, we conclude this four-part series with a profile of Carol Baird Ellan, the first female Chief Judge of the BC Provincial Court, and a comment from Chief Judge Melissa Gillespie, the second female Chief Judge of the Court.

The Court’s first woman Chief Judge

Carol Baird Ellan was the first woman to be appointed Chief Judge of the Provincial Court of British Columbia. She was appointed Chief Judge on July 6, 2000.

Former Chief Judge Baird Ellan grew up and attended high school in Vancouver and Hawaii. She graduated from the UBC Faculty of Law in 1979 and was admitted to the BC bar in 1980. After two years practising tax law, she joined the Crown Counsel office in 1983, and its Provincial Criminal Appeals Office in 1990, before being appointed a Provincial Court judge in 1993. At the time of her appointment, the former Chief Judge and her spouse had five children aged one through eight. She became the Administrative Judge for the Vancouver Criminal Court in 1996 and an Associate Chief Judge in 1999.

She brought indefatigable energy and innovative ideas to the role of Chief Judge. Her accomplishments include:

• instituting the first strategic planning process undertaken by a Canadian Provincial Court
• working with the Judicial Council of BC to revise its appointment and complaints processes
• advancing creation of a supernumerary program for senior judges
• establishing the Justice Centre staffed by judicial justices with new assignments of duties
• responding to emailed questions from the public in an “Ask the Chief Judge” feature on the Court’s website
• responding to the government’s closure of 24 Provincial Court locations in ways that led to reopening of some courthouses as circuit courts, written protocols on the respective responsibilities of government and the judiciary, and establishment of a collaborative Justice Review Task Force

Former Chief Judge Baird Ellan finished her term as Chief Judge in 2005 and returned to sitting as a judge in North Vancouver until her retirement in 2012. She credits her ground-breaking appointment to the women judges and chief judges across Canada who had already opened those doors by 2000, in particular the first BC Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Beverly McLachlin, and to a BC government that saw the importance of encouraging the female perspective in leadership positions. Former Chief Judge Baird Ellan continues her career as a member of the legal profession conducting family mediation and fulfilling volunteer roles. She embraces opportunities to mentor women in the legal profession.

Chief Judge Melissa Gillespie

The BC Provincial Court’s second female Chief Judge was appointed in 2018.

Chief Judge Gillespie was born and grew up in Calgary, Alberta. After obtaining a Bachelor of Commerce degree from Queens University and a law degree from the University of Toronto, she was called to the BC Bar in 1991. Like her predecessor, she spent most of her legal career as Crown Counsel. Chief Judge Gillespie honed the leadership skills she’d developed at a young age as Administrative Crown Counsel in Surrey, Deputy Regional Crown Counsel, and Regional Crown Counsel for the Fraser Region. She was appointed a Queen’s Counsel in 2009 and a Provincial Court judge in 2012.

After her appointment Judge Gillespie was a frequent speaker at education programs for judges, judicial justices, and lawyers, as well as in the community. She also served on the executive of the BC Provincial Court Judges Association and on the Board of the Justice Education Society. She was appointed an Associate Chief Judge in 2016. She is currently a member of the Board of Directors of Access Pro Bono.

Today Chief Judge Gillespie said:

“This is the first International Day of Women Judges, a day designated by the UN General Assembly last year. It’s a good time to celebrate the accomplishments of women who have achieved successful legal careers, contributed to their communities, and who continue to make important contributions as judges and in other roles. Their appointments broke barriers and provided role models to inspire girls and other women.

While acknowledging those achievements today, we are also thinking of the women judges around the world who have put their own lives at risk to uphold the rule of law.”