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Safeguarding the rule of law

The new CBA President, John Stefaniuk, discusses how members can help safeguard our democratic institutions, build an inclusive profession and give back to their communities.

John Stefaniuk, CBA President
CBA President John Stefaniuk

CBA National: As incoming president, what are the top priorities you'll be focusing on?

John Stefaniuk: My foremost priority, as well as that of the CBA, is serving our members. Our members advocate for the legal profession, shape legislation, drive law reform and work to improve our systems of justice and foster professional development.

In terms of presidential priorities for the year, I want to focus on three key areas. The first is protecting and advancing the rule of law at home and abroad. The second is inclusion; all lawyers, notaries, jurists, legal academics and law students should feel that they have a place within the CBA, and that the CBA is here for them. Third, I would like to encourage involvement and giving back to the profession and our communities. I hope to highlight some of the members who make meaningful contributions and encourage all to do the same. 

N: How do you assess the state of the rule of law in Canada? 

JS: Even in Canada, the rule of law is perennially challenged or under strain. Our legal profession must act to safeguard, raise awareness, and educate the public and elected representatives about its significance. Not as many elected officials are lawyers as there once were. Not all of us come from the same backgrounds. This makes it crucial for legal professionals to step in and fill the gaps. It's noteworthy that in the U.S., the American Bar Association is pushing for civics education to bolster understanding of government systems and the judiciary. We need to keep speaking out when encroachments might undermine the rule of law. We need to respond to public comments by groups, individuals, and elected officials, where we think they've crossed the line or that there needs to be additional explanation.

N: During a time of weakening institutions and growing challenges to the rule of law and democratic norms, do you see an opportunity for the legal community to renew its sense of purpose? And where does the CBA fit in?

JS: It's good to take stock periodically and ask ourselves what are we here for as professionals and as the CBA. This moment isn't unique in history; however, current events have made certain issues more pronounced in the public consciousness. This decline of shared experiences I spoke of has led to less understanding of norms we used to take for granted. This is evident in political discourse. It's evident in public understanding and support of legal traditions and institutions. In other respects, it's because sources of news media and information are more fragmented. This is an opportunity for the legal profession to help out by informing, educating, and advocating.

N: This year, the CBA held an event on building trust in an independent judiciary that raised issues surrounding the underfunding of the justice system and the newsrooms covering justice issues. What were some of the takeaways for you?

JS: One of the things that struck me most was the discussion on issues of accessibility. Physical accessibility of decisions and court records is important to reporters driven by 24-hour news cycle deadlines.  Accessibility is enhanced by ensuring decisions are understandable to both media and the public. The public deserves a system of justice that is accessible and seen as the place to go for the timely and efficient resolution of legal issues; one that protects their rights. That kind of accessibility is a challenge when delay and cost can make access difficult or unattainable. Another issue raised in the program was raising media and public understanding of the fundamental precepts of our justice system and our constitutional democracy since enactment of the Charter or Rights and Freedoms in 1982, especially the role of the courts and the law in protecting individual and collective freedoms from government encroachments.

N: How can the CBA work to bridge the gap between citizens and democratic institutions to enhance transparency, accountability, and public confidence?

JS: We need to remind people of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which safeguards individuals from state actions, emphasizing the importance of an independent judiciary and legal profession in upholding the rule of law and individual rights. It remains important to raise concerns about access to justice, including maintaining properly functioning courts, reasonable timeliness for legal proceedings, having alternative systems of delivery of justice where appropriate, and appropriate funding for criminal, civil, family and refugee legal aid. We can advocate with leaders, decision-makers, and government to support these public and CBA professional initiatives.

N: Is there a role for the CBA in doing some civic education through the media?

JS: The CBA calls itself the voice of the legal profession.  There is good reason. Our members regularly receive requests to provide opinions or context on all sorts of issues of public importance involving the law and the administration of justice — whether it concerns court decisions, legislation, or issues of law reform. We take an informed and nonpartisan approach to that work, and we take that role very seriously.

N: What is it about the CBA's mission that has kept you so involved and engaged over the years?

JS: The excellent work we do and the people within the CBA. Through my decades of involvement, I've made many, many close friends. I've also gained experiences I wouldn't have otherwise had, like participating in the CBA's International Development Program. I've travelled to East Africa, collaborating with colleagues from the Ugandan, Tanganyikan, and Kenyan Bar on issues of inclusion in mining and oil and gas development with emphasis on the particular impacts of extractive resource development on women and local community. It's the type of experience that would have been impossible without my involvement with the CBA. 

N: You chaired a fundraising organization that successfully raised endowment funds for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. How important is it for lawyers to engage with their communities this way?

JS: Some years ago, I bought a set of books at a yard sale - "The Law in Literature." The inscription said that they once belonged to the late D'Arcy McCaffrey, a respected Winnipeg litigator. Included was a passage from Sir Francis Bacon's introduction to his treatise on the laws of England. In today’s language, Bacon said that it is incumbent upon each person to be an ornament unto their profession by performing its functions well and by giving back to the profession and the community. I think that call applies to all of us who have the privilege of being members of the legal profession.

This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.