Retiring Chief Justice Worked to Improve Access to Justice and Judges

Tall white man in judicial robes.

The Chief Justice of Nova Scotia is retiring after a 40-year legal career, much of which he spent championing better access to justice, and creating opportunities for his fellow judges to engage and learn from racialized communities.

Known for his boundless energy and kind disposition, The Hon. J. Michael MacDonald was born in 1954 in Whitney Pier, Cape Breton, where he lived all his young life. The Chief Justice earned his B.A. from Mount Allison University, his LL.B. from Dalhousie University, and was called to the Nova Scotia Bar in 1979.

He practiced his entire career as a lawyer in Sydney, Cape Breton, with Boudreau, Beaton & LaFosse, which later merged with Stewart McKelvey Stirling Scales.

He was appointed a Justice of the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia in 1995 and the Associate Chief Justice three years later. He became the 22nd Chief Justice of Nova Scotia and the Chief Justice of the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal in 2004.

“Chief Justice MacDonald has turned out to be transformative,” said The Hon. Joseph Kennedy, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia. “The Courts in this province have evolved during his leadership. Judges now strive to understand and relate to the entire population in ways that are innovative and meaningful. Chief Justice MacDonald is largely responsible for this development. For that, and many reasons, he will be remembered as one of the great Chief Justices in the history of Nova Scotia.”

As Nova Scotia’s highest judge, the Chief Justice serves as the province’s administrator, stepping in when the Lieutenant Governor is absent. The Chief Justice also chairs the Nova Scotia Judicial Council, the Executive Office of the Nova Scotia Judiciary, and the Nova Scotia Council of Chiefs.

As a Judge of both the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal, Chief Justice MacDonald presided over hundreds of court cases during his 24 years on the Bench, leaving a legacy of jurisprudence that will have a lasting effect on Nova Scotia and Canadian law.

In 2014, Chief Justice MacDonald led the creation of Nova Scotia’s Access to Justice Coordinating Committee (A2JCC), a group of legal professionals tasked with making the province's family, civil and criminal court systems more efficient and effective, less costly and easier to navigate. He chaired the committee alongside the province’s various Attorneys General. The committee released its final report earlier this month.

“Chief Justice MacDonald’s leadership has helped reshape the justice system in this province for the betterment of all,” said Mark Furey, Nova Scotia’s Minister of Justice and Attorney General. “His determination and perseverance to improving access to justice will be his legacy.”

Chief Justice MacDonald worked with the A2JCC to open Free Legal Clinics in Halifax, Sydney, Yarmouth and Truro, with more locations on the way. The committee also partnered with Nova Scotia 211 to be a navigator for individuals looking to access justice and legal services; it commissioned a second phase of the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society #TalkJustice public engagement project; and it supported the creation of the new Access to Justice & Law Reform Institute of Nova Scotia.

In recognition of his contributions on this front, at its annual conference in 2018, the Canadian Bar Association – Nova Scotia Branch (CBA-NS) renamed one if its annual awards the J. Michael MacDonald Access to Justice Award. The same year, the Chief Justice received an Honourary Degree from Cape Breton University for devoting his efforts to improve the judicial system provincially and nationally.

“A CBA Member since 1985, Chief Justice MacDonald has been a wonderful supporter and a friend of the CBA,” said CBA-NS President Gail Gatchalian, QC. “We are especially grateful for his and the others Chiefs’ collaboration with the CBA-NS Equity Committee and Women’s Forum. This relationship has helped advance some important access to justice initiatives for people appearing before the Courts, including the development of a guide for respectful interactions with trans people and changes to the policy on courtroom attire to accommodate personal circumstances, such as pregnancy.”

In 2016, the Chief Justice asked Justice Linda Lee Oland to consider the issue of inclusion on the Bench and identify appropriate initiatives the Judiciary may undertake to encourage diversity, specifically Indigenous Black and Aboriginal representation. Since then, all her recommendations have been implemented, including the creation of a judicial mentorship initiative for African Nova Scotian and Indigenous lawyers.

Among Chief Justice MacDonald’s proudest achievements is the judiciary’s outreach work to engage racialized communities in Nova Scotia. The Chief Justice worked with Judge Corrine Sparks of the Family Court, Associate Chief Justice Lawrence O’Neil of the Supreme Court (Family Division), and Professor Michelle Williams, Director of the Indigenous Blacks & Mi’kmaq Initiative at the Schulich School of Law, to host a two-day meeting at the Black Cultural Centre in Cherry Brook last June. More than 40 judges heard firsthand about the the unique challenges facing African Nova Scotian communities, particularly in the context of the justice system.

At the end of that meeting, Chief Justice MacDonald committed to institutionalizing this type of judicial outreach. This led to the creation of the new African Nova Scotian Access to Justice Judicial Committee, which has since planned a second engagement session, taking place in Whitney Pier later this week.

"Chief Justice MacDonald has moved beyond words to actually implementing access to justice, and he has done so with humility, always seeking to better understand our communities in a respectful way,” said Professor Williams.

A member of the Canadian Judicial Council for 20 years, Chief Justice MacDonald chaired several national judicial committees, most recently the Judicial Conduct Committee. He has presented at and participated in numerous legal conferences in Canada, the United States, and Europe, and has assisted the judiciaries in Kazakhstan and Ukraine.

He is a regular guest speaker at the Schulich School of Law, a recipient of the Queen’s Golden and Diamond Jubilee medals, and volunteered regularly with Phoenix Youth to host justice day camps for young people from racialized communities.

The Chief Justice’s last day is Thursday, Jan. 31. He is looking forward to spending more time with family, especially his wife, Brenda. Together they have three daughters, Christina, Laura and Bhreagh, and two granddaughters, Cate and Caroline.

The next Chief Justice of Nova Scotia has yet to be named. That appointment is made by the federal Cabinet based on recommendations from the Prime Minister of Canada. There are provisions in Nova Scotia’s Judicature Act for an acting Chief Justice of Nova Scotia, specifically the next senior judge, other than a supernumerary judge, of the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal.