Let’s say you had a big presentation coming up at work. You’re about to make a big ask to the head of your company, with profound implications for your career. How would you get ready? You might ask for help: an extra set of eyes on your presentation, or getting somebody who understands how your boss thinks to critique you.
If you're a lawyer, and the "boss" is the Supreme Court of Canada, your friend in this scenario is the Supreme Court Advocacy Institute. The SCAI is a not-for-profit established in 2006 by Grégoire Webber, now a Queen’s Law professor, Owen Rees, Law’02, now counsel with the Department of Justice Canada, and retired Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci.
At the time when the Institute was first conceptualized, Webber and Rees were law clerks at the Supreme Court of Canada. During that time, the pair recognized an important problem – lawyers advocating at our country’s highest court were at times ill-prepared for their day in court because of the relative rarity of the opportunity to present a case before Canada’s top judges.
“The fundamental idea behind the Institute is that everyone approaching the Supreme Court of Canada should have an opportunity to put their best foot forward,” says Webber, who has been the Canada Research Chair in Public Law and Philosophy of Law at Queen’s since 2014.
The quality of presentations made before the Court is no small concern – Webber points out these cases shape the law of the land, and Supreme Court judges rely on being provided with the best arguments to inform their decisions. The implications of their judgements go far beyond the immediate case and the needs of the clients and lawyers on hand on any given day.
To help these lawyers prepare, both sides of an appeal are given the opportunity to hold a mock hearing with the Supreme Court Advocacy Institute one week prior to their Supreme Court debut. In place of actual Supreme Court judges, there is a panel of three lawyers – referred to as ‘advocacy advisors’ – who have experience in Supreme Court cases and who give their time pro bono. The setting is somewhat less formal – the hearing is held at the law office of one of the panelists, and formal business attire takes the place of the Supreme Court gowns – but the atmosphere is no less serious.
After listening for one hour, the panelists will provide one hour of feedback to help guide the lawyers in correcting mistakes, refining their strategy, and improving their arguments. They will ask a number of questions, anticipating the types of questions that the Supreme Court judges will ask.
“The feedback we receive from lawyers who participate in these sessions is a point of pride for us – without exception, it is hugely complimentary,” says Webber. “We have outstanding advocacy advisors, and the participants in these sessions often write to us to express their thanks both right after the session and right after their Supreme Court visit. In fact, in a number of instances, the panel exactly anticipated some of the questions from the Supreme Court judges.”
The Supreme Court Advocacy Institute organizes advocacy sessions in approximately 50 per cent of the cases before the top court, with Ontario and Quebec averaging even higher numbers. While the Institute cannot disclose specifically which cases its advocacy advisors have heard, Webber says in their 13 years of existence they have heard some of the biggest cases to come to the Supreme Court.
Importantly, there is no cost for lawyers with a case before the Supreme Court to access the Institute’s services. The organization operates on a tiny budget, relying on volunteer work from its approximately 120 volunteers and some generous donations from various law organizations. From its founding to its 2017-18 year, the Institute has donated the equivalent of just over $5 million in pro bono contributions.
“Sometimes I surprise myself when I realize how long we have been involved in operating this organization,” says Webber. “Those who have been with us since 2006 are still with us today. It’s a great story about how a little idea became a national institution.”
To learn more about the Supreme Court Advocacy Institute, visit www.scai-ipcs.ca.
In 2015, Owen Rees and Professor Grégoire Webber were recognized with Meritorious Service Medals by Canada’s Governor General for their work in establishing the Supreme Court Advocacy Institute.
Want to go behind the scenes with a Supreme Court case that the Institute participated in? Read this 2008 Globe and Mail article.