Passionate about judicial education - Judge Rita Bowry

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Her colleagues on the Provincial Court Judges Association Education Committee - a committee she has chaired for nearly five years—routinely refer to her as a “force of nature”. That is not an epithet one would normally expect to be used to describe a person 4’11” in height. But, though perhaps small in physical stature, Judge Rita Bowry is formidable in her commitment, human compassion, achievements and reputation.

Judge Bowry was appointed a judge of the Provincial Court of British Columbia in January 2008 - the first Hindu/Punjabi woman judge appointed to the Court. She then joined two other judges assigned to the Peace River area of the province’s Northern region. The appointment represented the fulfillment of a long-held desire to serve her community in a new and very important way.

“When I received the call I was elated,” Judge Bowry explains. “I’ve lived all my formative years in the Peace River area. When I thought there might be a judicial opening in my community, I applied as it was important to me at that time that I stay here to preside.”

Judge Bowry was born in Nairobi, Kenya, but has lived in the Peace ever since she was seven years old (after a brief stop in London, England). Her father, a lawyer, moved the entire family to Canada in the late 1960s and established a thriving practice in Dawson Creek.

After finishing high school in Dawson Creek, Judge Bowry wished to expand her horizons. Thus, she relocated to Winnipeg to take her first degree (a B.A. in in Canadian Studies with a minor in Women’s History from the University of Manitoba).

With that undergraduate training behind her, law seemed to be the natural, and only, next step. Unquestionably, her decision to take that step was guided in part by her father’s example and encouragement. But, he was not the only one to recognize early signs of legal aptitude. Judge Bowry’s grandmother could also see that she might be destined for a legal career like her father. “She used to call me, in Punjabi, chōṭā vakīla, meaning little advocate,” Judge Bowry recalls.

On the subject of her father’s influence, Judge Bowry continues: “When I was accepted into law school, he took me to the airport, he looked at me and he said, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ He was a wonderful role model. I had spent much time observing him and his colleagues over the years.”

There was never any real doubt in Judge Bowry’s mind that she would “do this.” She goes on: “I guess from a very young age there was recognition that I would end up in the legal field—somehow, some way. It’s been an absolute honour to follow in my father’s footsteps.”

So it was that she journeyed to Fredericton where, three years later, she earned her law degree at the University of New Brunswick.

Judge Bowry’s experience living in different parts of this country during her university studies broadened and deepened her understanding of, and appreciation for, Canada. But once she finished her studies, she felt again the strong, tidal pull of family and community and knew that Dawson Creek was where she wished to settle. Thus, with her freshly minted law degree in hand she returned to her home town in the Peace, articled and then practiced there for many successful years until her appointment to the Provincial Court in 2008.

One might be forgiven for thinking that a dynasty is starting to take shape within Judge Bowry’s family. The legal genes appear to have been passed on again to the next generation. Judge Bowry has three nieces and a nephew in the profession and her son is currently studying law at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.

Judge Bowry is passionate about many things. She is passionate about her family. She is passionate about the law and public service. But she is particularly passionate about continuing education for judges. This is because she believes that it is essential that judges stay current with the law as it evolves. She believes equally that judges must be mindful of cultural issues and with ever-changing social context factors that impinge on the decisions judges must make every day.

It was natural, therefore, that Judge Bowry should be invited to join the Provincial Court Judges Association (“PCJA”) Education Committee in the Fall of 2011 and, as noted, be elected its chairperson only two years later. She continues in that role to the present day. All of the committee’s members acknowledge the depth and breadth of Judge Bowry’s commitment to judicial education. They also respect and appreciate her legendary organizational skills. The need for both is plain when one recalls that the committee is responsible for organizing and hosting two, 2 ½-day conferences for Provincial Court judges every year—one in the Spring and one in the Fall.

The programs are developed years in advance and expert presenters from across Canada and, occasionally from abroad, share their knowledge and expertise with all members of the Provincial Court bench. Effective planning for continuing judicial education requires that Judge Bowry and her colleagues on the PCJA Education Committee be astute to changing conditions and circumstances that bear upon judicial processes and practices, and always stay several steps “ahead of the curve.”

“I have a great committee. We work as a very cohesive team and that’s what has contributed to the success of our programs,” Judge Bowry observes, also expressing thanks for the support of the Office of the Chief Judge and Chief Judge Thomas Crabtree. “All the work we do is literally done off the sides of our desks. We have meetings on Saturday mornings, once per month. The judges on the committee build and develop these programs virtually all during volunteer time.”

Judge Bowry continues: “Ongoing judicial education contributes to maintaining the rule of law and to ensuring that we always meet a very high standard of judicial performance. We need to be satisfied that judicial education is relevant and responsive to changes in the law,” she says. “I think, most importantly, that we have a duty to continue to learn. We have a duty to stay abreast of changes.” Acknowledging the importance of social context factors, Judge Bowry adds: “We need to learn about the particular characteristics and experiences of people that may affect their interactions with the legal system, such as age, literacy, disability, language, gender, nationality, and culture.”

As a female member of a visible, ethnic minority, Judge Bowry has clearly become an important role model for many. And she embraces that responsibility with enthusiasm as she participates in the community outreach activities that most judges also enjoy. She says: “I always find it so heartening when I have students who come into our courtrooms and they are from my former elementary school or my former junior high or high schools. When they ask me questions about where I went to school and how I became a judge I say to them, ‘Well, before university I went to Tremblay School and then I went to South Peace School.’ And, you can see them—particularly the young women—sit up and think ‘Oh, well, I can do that too.’ And that’s a great feeling.”

Ultimately, what matters to Judge Bowry personally comes down to respect for the way she deals with the often vulnerable people who appear before her every day. What matters more than anything to her is that she be perceived by those people as having given them a fair hearing. She wishes them to leave her courtroom believing, win or lose, that she applied the law even-handedly, such that their rights and responsibilities were justly considered and their disputes fairly adjudicated. “I like to be respected for what I do. It’s not about who I am or the colour of my skin. Neither is it about my gender. It’s about being respected for what I do every day.”

This profile is based, in part, upon an interview of Judge Bowry conducted by Ryan Erwin, a student at UBC’s Allard School of Law and a former judicial intern at the Provincial Court of British Columbia.