Judging: a lifelong journey of learning

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Most professions expect their members to stay abreast of the knowledge that is relevant to their work. It is no different in judging. As Provincial Court judges in British Columbia perform their daily functions, legislation is in constant flux and the case law affecting their decisions evolves steadily. It is essential that they keep up.

Of course, exposure to changes in the law comes naturally in judges’ daily work. They are plugged-in in real time to various helpful resources—including the Court’s invaluable legal officers, Gene Jamieson, Q.C. and Karen Leung, the U.B.C. students who intern with the Court, and online law reports. The parties and lawyers who appear in court also draw their attention to new enactments and decisions.

Individual judges work hard to stay on top of the changing landscape of the law, but their efforts are augmented by an ambitious court-wide continuing education program. The Provincial Court holds two judicial education conferences a year— each occupying a Thursday, Friday and Saturday morning. All judges attend unless they have been otherwise assigned by the Chief Judge.

An Education Committee consisting of several judges, who volunteer their time, plans, organizes and executes the conferences with the help of Court staff. Before one conference has ended, preparation for the next is underway. Thus, the Education Committee’s work is never done! Deciding twice a year what topics will be addressed and who will address them requires extensive advance planning. Education Committee members meet in person on many Saturdays, hold regular lunchtime teleconferences, and are in constant communication via e-mail and telephone.

Judges complete evaluation forms for each conference day. Their feedback on content and presentation methods guides the Education Committee. Thus, continuing judicial education in the Provincial Court has a built-in mechanism to ensure that it is dynamic, self-adjusting and systemically committed to improvement.

The B.C. Provincial Court has been an innovator in judicial education in Canada. Experts recognize that having variety and texture in continuing education for professionals can enhance uptake and participation. The Court began using adult education techniques in the 1980s. Today, Education Committee members continue to follow the adult education literature and employ progressive new approaches. As a result, judicial education at the Provincial Court—whether it is addressing skills development, ethics, best practices, a recently enacted statute, or a recent and important decision of a higher court—is interactive and engaging. Presenters include judges who have developed particular expertise in given areas and a willingness to share what they have learned with their colleagues. However, they also include non-court presenters—experts in relevant fields who welcome the opportunity to bring their knowledge to a judicial audience.

Judging is, of course, concerned with much more than just black-letter law. The human problems that come before judges unfold within a broader context that cannot be ignored. The Court’s recognition of this important dimension is reflected in the lineup at every conference. For example, the Court’s autumn conference held last week was entitled “Trauma Informed Judging” in recognition of the indisputable fact that trauma affects the Court’s work, and the lives of litigants and other court participants, in a myriad of ways. The keynote speaker was Justice Murray Sinclair of the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench. Justice Sinclair recently served as the head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that inquired into the tragic aftermath, for generations of aboriginal citizens, of Canada’s residential schools program. His insights into the corrosive effects of trauma were both compelling and informative.

This conference also featured a presentation on Post-traumatic Stress Disorder by a panel consisting of a psychologist, a victim services worker and a judge who previously served with the Canadian military in Afghanistan and Bosnia. There was also a session on the subject of interviewing children who are caught in the crossfire of adult, post-separation conflict. By including sessions like this the Court acknowledges that judges do not operate within a vacuum. Enhancing judges’ understanding of the broader factors—social, psychological, economic, etc.—that impinge on the parties who appear before them is an important part of judicial education.

Last, but by no means least, the Provincial Court’s judicial education conferences provide judges scattered across a province that is geographically immense an opportunity to congregate in one place, twice per year, and “cross-pollinate”. Enormous, intangible benefits flow from simply getting all those judges together. Having a chance to share insights and approaches informally enlarges and diversifies the benefits of the conferences’ more formal content. Recently appointed judges have opportunities to bat ideas about with their more senior colleagues; judges in one region learn about innovative solutions to problems developed in another. The value of these opportunities to share to the overall intellectual health of the Court cannot be underestimated.

To be sure, judging represents a lifelong journey of learning and B.C.’s Provincial Court judges are committed and enthusiastic learners. The Court’s twice-annual judicial education conferences provide a wealth of opportunity for learning—both formal and informal. They ensure that the depth and breadth of judges’ knowledge of the law and of contextual factors will continue to grow, all ultimately for the benefit of the public they serve.

Read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report.