Faculty of Law

Faculty of Law
Faculty of Law

‘Quintessential common law judge’ Cromwell celebrated at Queen’s symposium 

(September 25, 2017)

The Honourable Thomas Cromwell, Law’76, LLD’10, at the Queen’s Law at 60 symposium in his honour with panelists and co-editors of the forthcoming commemorative Supreme Court Law Review volume: (l-r) Owen Rees, Law’02; Stephen Aylward; Professor Lisa Kerr; Professor Stephen Coughlan; Michele Leering, PhD student; the Honourable John Evans; Pam Hrick, Law’13, and Dean Bill Flanagan.
The Honourable Thomas Cromwell, Law’76, LLD’10, at the Queen’s Law at 60 symposium in his honour with panelists and co-editors of the forthcoming
commemorative Supreme Court Law Review volume: (l-r) Owen Rees, Law’02; Stephen Aylward; Professor Lisa Kerr; Professor Stephen Coughlan;
Michele Leering, PhD student; the Honourable John Evans; Pam Hrick, Law’13, and Dean Bill Flanagan. (Photo by Garrett Elliott)

At a symposium held in his honour, recently retired Supreme Court Justice Thomas Cromwell, Law’76, LLD’10 (Mus’73) received heaps of praise, as well as some playful criticism, from friends and colleagues. The symposium, inspired by the upcoming publication of In Furtherance of Justice: The Judicial Life of Thomas A. Cromwell, a commemorative volume of the Supreme Court Law Review, was one of the events held on September 9 to help celebrate the Faculty of Law’s 60th anniversary. 

Event host Dean Bill Flanagan introduced the panel of speakers and thanked Pam Hrick, Law’13, one of Cromwell’s former clerks who, in addition to co-editing the special publication with Stephen Aylward, also helped organize the symposium. 

The first presenter, Professor Stephen Coughlan of Dalhousie, spoke about Cromwell, the person. “He is the best argument for the simulation hypothesis [of reality],” Coughlan joked, because “his string of accomplishments is so implausible that it makes him sound like a badly written fictional character,” which an author may use as a form of wish-fulfilment. In addition to his achievements and humanitarian interests, Coughlan highlighted Cromwell’s modesty. “Despite being a musician, he would never blow his own horn.”

The Honourable John Evans, a former Federal Court of Appeal judge now with Goldblatt Partners, was next called on to discuss Cromwell’s impact on administrative law. Evans noted that Cromwell’s reasons “seem to move very easily between lucid expositions of general principles to grounded appreciation of the particular context in which those principles were being applied.” He briefly paused his praise to respectfully highlight one 2011 decision, Canadian Human Rights Commission v. Canada, which he calls “incongruent” with the principles highlighted in Cromwell’s other decisions. 

“English lawyers would call him a ‘green light jurist’,” Evans stated in summary, who “sees the judicial role as whenever possible, facilitating the effective delivery of regulatory and benefit-conferring programs ... Whenever he regarded judicial action as impinging on fundamental rights or saw statute powers being abused, Cromwell didn’t hesitate to intervene.” 

In her presentation, Professor Lisa Kerr of Queen’s Law reflected on Cromwell’s judgment in Canada v. Downtown Eastside Sex Workers United Against Violence Society. In addition to “liberalizing and clarifying” the law surrounding public interest standing in constitutional cases, Kerr explained that the decision revealed Cromwell’s respect for litigants, pragmatic reasoning, and commitment to access to justice. Having worked on the case as counsel, Kerr described how Cromwell recognized the practical barriers that stood in the way of an individual sex worker coming forward as a plaintiff. Kerr described Cromwell’s striking sensitivity toward the social realities facing an “often invisible and marginalized group in our society.” 

Owen Rees, Law’02, counsel with Conway Baxter Wilson LLP and a former Executive Legal Officer to the Chief Justice of Canada, chose a line of Cromwell’s judgments that were “central to the digitizing of section 8” of the Charter to reveal something about Cromwell as a jurist. “Justice Cromwell’s judgments are a masterclass of the common law method,” Rees said, making Cromwell “the quintessential common law judge.” Rees too highlights tensions among Cromwell’s decisions, specifically taking issue with the 2014 case R. v. Fearon, and comically asking, “What gives?”

Finally, Michele Leering, the Executive Director and a lawyer with the Community & Advocacy Centre and a PhD in Law student at Queen’s, underlined Cromwell’s substantive contributions to access to justice. While occupying different roles, including as chair of the national Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters, Leering explained that Cromwell has changed the discourse, introduced new rigour, and promoted the scholarship surrounding this issue. She also attributed a “culture shift” within the profession to Cromwell, as well as a movement to provide greater access to justice to all members of society. 

In his closing remarks, Cromwell had two messages for the audience. The first was especially for those at the start of their careers. “When you’re given an opportunity to help with something that you think is important,” he urged, “try to take it if you can.” 

His parting thought was about the entire legal profession. “One of the most important things is that we try to build a profession with a strong social conscience, which gives equal opportunity to people and is increasingly diverse to reflect our society. We need to continue to work to ensure that every student who comes to law school gets that same reassurance; that there is a place for them in our profession.”

By Michael Adams