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Judicial Conduct

What is judicial conduct?

Judicial conduct (a judge’s conduct/behaviour) refers to the high standard of personal conduct that is expected of judges, both in court and in public.

There is an important distinction between a judge’s personal conduct in or outside of a courtroom and a decision that a judge makes in a particular court case. If a federally appointed judge’s behaviour is not appropriate, you can make a complaint to the Canadian Judicial Council. If you believe that the judge reached the wrong decision in your court case, you may appeal to a higher court to review that decision.

Principles of judicial conduct

Below is an introduction to some general principles of judicial conduct that may give you some added insight into the very high standards to which judges strive.

  • Perhaps the most important qualification of a judge is the ability to make independent and impartial decisions. Indeed, an independent judiciary is the right of every Canadian and is carefully protected. Judges strive to reject any outside influence that may impact on their ability to make independent decisions.
  • Judges should, at all times, exhibit and promote high standards of conduct so as to reinforce public confidence. Judges should strive to conduct themselves in a way that will sustain and contribute to public respect and confidence in their integrity, impartiality and good judgment.
  • Judges should perform their duties with diligence while treating everyone before the court with courtesy and equality, being careful to avoid stereotyping or discrimination. Judges should avoid comments, expressions, gestures or behaviour which may be interpreted as showing insensitivity or disrespect.
  • In making their decisions, judges must be and must appear to be impartial at all times. Judges must be mindful of how inappropriate comments, improper remarks or unjustified reprimands can undermine the appearance of impartiality and actively work to avoid them.

Visitors are encouraged to refer to Ethical Principles for Judges for a more detailed discussion on these general principles.

We expect judges to maintain a high standard of conduct, both inside and outside the courtroom. When someone believes that a judge’s behaviour (not their decision) is of concern, or that a judge is not fit to sit on the Bench, a complaint can be made to the Canadian Judicial Council. In very serious cases, Parliament can remove a judge from office.

What kind of complaint does CJC receive?

Below are some examples of the kinds of complaints we receive. Each complaint is unique and is carefully reviewed by members of the Canadian Judicial Council’s Judicial Conduct Committee.

  • Complaints are sometimes made based on articles in the media which suggest a judge’s comments were insensitive or inappropriate.

    In reviewing these complaints, the entirety of a judge’s comments are reviewed - not just the bits reprinted in the media reports. At times, the characterization of a judge’s comments can be misleading.
  • Complaints are sometimes made to raise concern about a judge’s tone of voice and body language appearing to be harsh or angry.

    A key function of judge is to control proceedings with a firm, decisive and authoritative manner. A judge may, at times, use strong language to ensure a full understanding by all parties.
  • Complaints are sometimes made when people feel that a judge has made negative comments about someone’s moral character and integrity.

    A judge is sometimes required to comment on the behaviour, mental health status and personal history of the individuals appearing before him. A judge also has the duty to assess the credibility and truthfulness of witnesses.
  • Complaints are sometimes made by people who go to court without a lawyer (self-represented litigants) who believe the judge should give them extra help given their lack of knowledge of the law or of legal procedures.

    While judges ensure that self-represented litigants are provided with fair access and equal treatment in the courts, they cannot answer legal questions on how to proceed. They cannot give legal advice or provide recommendations about what people should do.

While all complaints are reviewed carefully, some allegations are based on mere speculation and conjecture. In cases where complaints are deemed to be clearly without substance, irrational or an obvious abuse of the complaints process, Council will dismiss the complaint.

The Council’s Annual Reports include other examples of complaints and their outcomes.

What is the Canadian Judicial Council’s role?

If a federally appointed judge has breached the standard of good behaviour and is not suitable to be a member of the judiciary, only Parliament can remove the judge from office. And, under the Judges Act, Parliament has assigned the process to review alleged breaches of conduct to the Canadian Judicial Council.

By directing complaints to the Canadian Judicial Council, Parliament acknowledges that the public must have a way to voice its concerns about judges. At the same time, the system must allow judges to respond to allegations of misconduct in a fair manner. The process must be efficient, fair, and objective.

A matter for appeal or a complaint?

In brief, the Canadian Judicial Council investigates complaints about an individual judge’s inappropriate conduct, not a judge’s decision in a court case.

Every year, judges in Canadian courts make hundreds of thousands of decisions on matters ranging from procedural issues to determining important points of law. When one party in a legal dispute thinks the judge made the wrong decision, the justice system allows that person to appeal to a higher court. For example, if you think that a judge of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice reached the wrong decision in your case, you can appeal the decision to the Ontario Court of Appeal.

Judges can make mistakes. An appeal court can reverse or vary the decision made by the judge who heard the case. The fact that an appeal court overturns a judge’s decision does not mean that the judge’s conduct was improper or that the judge should be removed from office. It simply means that the appeal court believed the judge made a mistake about the law or the facts of the case.

All judges are expected to uphold a high standard of personal conduct, both inside and outside the courtroom. So, aside from the decision the judge reaches in your case, the judge must be impartial when hearing your case, be respectful and courteous throughout the proceedings, and maintain a high standard of integrity. For example, it is appropriate for members of the public to ask the Council to investigate complaints about judges who are thought to have shown biases based on race, gender, or religion. Complaints can arise from judges’ comments in the courtroom, from speeches or interviews given outside the courtroom.

If you are concerned about the conduct of a federally appointed judge, think carefully about the kind of action you may take:

  • If you believe the judge made the wrong decision in your case, consider appealing your case to a higher court.
  • If you believe a judge’s conduct was improper, either during your case or in public, consider making a complaint to the Canadian Judicial Council.

The following are also useful links regarding judicial conduct and ethics.