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How the Supreme Court modernized its approach to public relations

Supreme Court of Canada

On September 9, I had the privilege of attending the 2019 edition of the annual F.R. Scott Lecture at my alma mater, the Faculty of Law of McGill University. The event featured a conversation between The Right Honourable Richard Wagner, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, and McGill Law Professor Shauna Van Praagh.

Though their 75-minute conversation covered a range of legal topics, I was struck by how often the Chief Justice referred to the importance of public relations as a tool to increase access to justice and ensure the effective functioning of Canada’s justice system.

Even the austere and tradition-laden Supreme Court of Canada realizes the importance of public relations and follows a well-defined communications plan. This is especially true under the leadership of the reform-minded Chief Justice Wagner, who was elevated to his role as Canada’s highest-ranking judge in December 2017.

The Supreme Court of Canada isn’t an ivory tower. It’s your Court. The decisions we make here affect your life, and that of your family and community. It’s important to us that you understand the work that we do, and why it matters. Richard Wagner, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada

No longer does the Supreme Court communicate only with lawyers, judges and the other “usual suspects” of our judicial system. For Chief Justice Wagner, the Supreme Court should “educate and inform all the time.” While the judges cannot publicly discuss legal issues that may come before the Court, they can certainly explain their role in society.

For Canadians, having access to justice includes knowing your rights in the first place. Communicating what those rights are, and how our independent judiciary enforces them, is part of the high court’s role.

The Supreme Court’s modern approach to communications and public relations features several components:

Social media

In addition to its user-friendly website, the Supreme Court now has Twitter and Facebook accounts to better communicate with the public (“But not the individual judges!” emphasized the Chief Justice). In addition, most hearings are webcast live on the Court’s website, and can later be viewed at any time.

In the past, the Court relied on traditional media to relay news of its judgments, but times have changed: fewer reporters from traditional media outlets are assigned to cover the Court. The Court now needs to convey its message directly to the public, and to do so via the media channels consumed by modern Canadians. These initiatives bring the Supreme Court closer to the population.

Our first judges could never have imagined how technologies like cable news, social media, and smartphones would change our world. Today, these are the media through which many Canadians learn about and interact with their public institutions, including the Court. Richard Wagner, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada

Cases in Brief

Under Chief Justice Wagner, the Court now publishes “Cases in Brief”, or short summaries of the Court’s lengthy written decisions in reader-friendly language, so that anyone interested can learn about the decisions that affect their lives.

Annual report

The Court now publishes a “Year in Review” retrospective, written in plain language and featuring easy-to-understand data-visualization graphics.

Taking the show on the road

In late September, the Supreme Court will sit outside of its Ottawa home for the first time in history. The nine justices of the Court will hear two appeals in Winnipeg. While there, they will host a public “meet-and-greet”. They will also interact with members of the local bench and bar, and will visit local First Nations and Métis communities, the local Francophone community and local law students, among other stakeholders.

“I think it would be a good thing for us to offer to people who do not have a chance to come to Ottawa to the Supreme Court to see what we do, how we do it, and why we do it,” the Chief Justice explained.

The visit to Winnipeg even has its own social media hashtag— #SCCinWinnipeg!

Public hearings for new justices

Chief Justice Wagner spoke positively of the open nomination process instituted in 2016, under which potential Supreme Court justices are identified by a non partisan advisory board. Once chosen by the Minister of Justice and the Prime Minister, the new judge is questioned in public by a panel of parliamentarians.

The hearing is conducted before a large audience and broadcast live. The goal is for the public to learn more about the individuals who sit on our nation’s highest court. After all, these jurists wield extraordinary power over the everyday lives of Canadians. We should know who they are!

It is important that the judiciary communicate with the public with as much transparency as possible. This leads to greater confidence in our justice system among Canadians. The Supreme Court’s adoption of modern public relations techniques can serve as an example for all institutions that play a role in the legal sphere.

As Chief Justice Wagner stated, “In Canada, we are fortunate to have a strong and independent judiciary. We have strong institutions in Canada, but we should not take that for granted. We have to continue working for that.”

By adapting to the times and leveraging modern approaches to public relations, the Supreme Court of Canada continues to enjoy a level of respect among Canadians that is the envy of high courts around the world.

The author is a lawyer who serves as Senior Advisor, Financial Communications and Investor Relations at NATIONAL Public Relations.