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The pandemic's impact on access to justice

Bringing technology into the courtroom has been a blessing for people living in rural and remote areas.

The Honourable Judge Michelle C. Christopher, judge of the Provincial Court of Alberta, Southern Region
The Honourable Judge Michelle C. Christopher, judge of the Provincial Court of Alberta, Southern Region (right)

I am delighted to have been asked to share my perspectives on life as a provincial court judge, particularly since I have now been a judge long enough to suppress the urge to stand up when the clerk calls out “all rise” and to back out of the courtroom when I depart, both remnants of my 30+ years as a litigator.

I now travel the circuit of Alberta’s southernmost region, which is comprised of the judicial districts of Medicine Hat and Lethbridge. Seven courthouses dot the small cities and towns of this area, which stretches south of Calgary from our borders with Saskatchewan to the east, British Columbia to the west and the U.S. to the south.  It is also home to the Kainai Nation (the Blood Tribe), the largest First Nation reserve by area in Canada and one of the most populous in the country.

If you asked me to describe my experience thus far, in one word, I would say “interesting”. It’s been interesting partly because, I did not know until very late in the process, that I was to become the first woman judge appointed in the Judicial District of Medicine Hat. This fact astonished me. It was 2018, after all. Three short years later, I am pleased – and also very thankful – to report that Southern Alberta has now achieved gender parity on the bench, with women judges holding five of the ten full-time judicial posts in the region. This is a first for Alberta, and a welcome reflection of much needed diversity on the bench. Diversity in the legal profession, and on the bench, enhances access to justice when people coming to court have a better chance of seeing themselves reflected in the lawyers and judges they encounter.

My life as a judge has also been interesting because it has provided the opportunity to live and work in a different part of the province. While some who drive the narrow ribbons of highway weaving through the wheat fields and ranches south of Calgary describe this terrain as “bland” or “boring” with “nothing to see”, I love the open skies and prairie landscape more than I ever thought I could. There’s something magical about the way the view changes with the seasons, and with the light and time of day.

As I drive from one court location to another, my judicial robes and law books in the back seat of the car, I always encounter something on the land which connects me to the people I am likely going to meet in court that day, wherever that may be. In the south, everyone and every occupation – from grain farmers to cowboys and ranchers, to meat-packers, poultry processors and gas plant workers – is tied to the land. This makes going to work interesting, as one never knows who will end up in the courtroom, or for what reason.

My perspective from the bench has allowed me to observe the impact of the pandemic on access to justice. The pandemic has certainly highlighted the continued problem of access to justice. But there has been a silver lining: the pandemic has brought technology into the courtroom at warp speed. This is a huge win for all the people living in rural and remote areas who have historically been unable to get transportation to the courts for routine appearances or trials. They now have the option of appearing by telephone, in the same way that a much wider pool of lawyers, of all vintages, may now appear by Webex from locations across the province. Broader access to counsel across the province has meant that those seeking representation have more choice in who they can retain and at what cost. Legal aid has also improved its processes to facilitate applications from remote locations, also a win for access to justice. While much more remains to be accomplished on that front, I am certain that the changes I have seen in my short time on the bench will continue to improve access to justice and confidence in the administration of justice.