Former Chief Judge Crabtree awarded 2018 CBABC President’s Medal

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On June 23, 2018 Bill Veenstra, President of the Canadian Bar Association BC Branch (CBABC), awarded its President’s Medal to Justice Thomas Crabtree, former Chief Judge of the Provincial Court of BC, for his outstanding contributions to the legal profession and the administration of justice in British Columbia.

In announcing the award, Mr. Veenstra paid a warm tribute to Justice Crabtree, saying:

“One of the special privileges of being Branch President is that there is a special President’s medal that can be awarded each year at the sole and utter discretion of the President. It recognizes a significant contribution to the profession or the justice system. Some of the past honourees are CBABC insiders, while others are those who have shown important leadership in other ways.

This year’s honouree has been, to my observation, an amazing leader in improving the justice system in British Columbia, tirelessly travelling around the province meeting and talking with lawyers, judges, community leaders, government officials, and other legal stakeholders – finding ways to bring innovation and improved access to justice in the institution for which he was responsible – that being the Provincial Court of British Columbia.

I have one story to tell. Just over a year ago, I had travelled to Terrace to speak at a professional development session put on by the CBABC in partnership with the Prince Rupert County bar. Kerry Simmons QC was there with me, as was the then Chief Judge – Tom Crabtree. We were all returning to Vancouver on the same evening flight, and having rented a car I offered to drive the others to the airport. We agreed we would stop along the way for a quick bite. But of course a couple of lawyers at the event had some ideas on how to improve the Provincial Court’s service in their community. “Just let me talk to them for a few minutes” – Tom said. Forty-five minutes later Kerry and I are still cooling our heels, thinking about dinner and wondering if we’ll have time for anything other than a granola bar before our flight.

The Provincial Court published a story celebrating Tom’s “translation” (as they called it) to the Supreme Court. They referred to Tom’s “abiding common touch and modesty” – which are characteristics I saw time and time again. They also described Tom as a “fearless innovator” which he also demonstrated again and again. Tom worked with the CBABC to develop a “Twitter Town Hall”, where social media users could Tweet in their questions during the Town Hall and have them answered by the Chief Judge.

Tom’s time as Chief Judge saw significant expansion of First Nations courts in New Westminster, Duncan, Kamloops, Merritt, Prince George and North Vancouver as well as aboriginal child protection conferences in New Westminster. These courts may look very similar on the surface, but they all have important distinctive features that reflect the communities in which they are based. Every one of them was the product of hours and hours of listening to those communities and figuring out how the Court could best serve them, and Tom as Chief Judge was also Chief Listener.

Tom took office as Chief Judge of the Provincial Court on April 8, 2010. Five months later the Court released its important report “Justice Delayed: A report of the Provincial Court of British Columbia Concerning Judicial Resources”. The Court now carefully measures and publishes reports on delays in the system.

As Chair of Judicial Council, Tom oversaw the development of a ground-breaking reporting of statistics on the application process, including on the diversity of applicants.

Tom has been a fixture at our Provincial Council meetings – regardless of whether he was speaking or not. I recall once trying to thank him for coming and showing interest in our work. Tom was very clear – no thanks were required. He came because being part of this community, being able to interact directly with the bar, and keeping aware of what the legal community was up to, were very important to him.

When the Attorney General was here in January, he mentioned that he sees me everywhere. Of course, that means that I would see him in a lot of places too. But there is one person that I absolutely saw more often than anyone including the Attorney General – and that was Chief Judge Crabtree.

Any time there was a meeting to discuss access to justice or improvements to the courts – Tom was there. Any time there was a call to speak to the bar – no matter where in the province it might be – Tom was there. When we used to do golf tournaments to raise funds for scholarships – Tom was there. Every year at our Aboriginal Lawyers Forum events, be it the holiday banquet in December or the annual auction and reception in June – Tom was there. Last November, Tom agreed to come and speak at our branch conference in Las Vegas. He was also scheduled to be leading a judges conference the day before in BC, and to speak to another group in Toronto the day after – and managed to get to all three which was very much appreciated. His dedication to being the face of the Court, to working to improve access to justice, and to supporting and encouraging positive interactions with the bar were constant and it has felt really strange to go the past several weeks without seeing now Mr. Justice Crabtree.

So in honour of all of those contributions, I’d like to award this year’s President’s Medal to the Honourable Mr. Justice Crabtree.”