Teaching Judicial Skills

AuthorAdèle Kent
PositionChief Judicial Officer Emerita, National Judicial Institute of Canada
[2022] Irish Judicial Studies Journal Vol 6(1)
Abstract: This article draws on Canadian practice to consider how judges can develop the skills necessary to
become effective communicators in the courtroom. The judicial skills model practised in the National Judicial
Skills Institute in Canada is based on the idea that in teaching a skill, it is necessary to provide some theory
on the skill, then model the skill, have the learners practise the skill and also have them critique that practise
and practise again. The oral judgments course is given as an example of a course which adopts this method.
This approach, which often uses actors as participants, allows judges to practice the skill of effective courtroom
communication; it allows judges to learn how and when to intervene in various scenarios, how to communicate
with persons in the courtroom, including counsel as well as upset, emotional, and vulnerable complainants.
Developing effective scenarios for these exercises and facilitation of training more generally is time-consuming
and labour-intensive but ultimately is a very worthwhile endeavour in terms of furthering the skills of the
Author: Adèle Kent, Chief Judicial Officer Emerita, National Judicial Institute of Canada
If asked, most people are likely to define a skill as something that you do that is mostly
mechanical, like operating a car or woodworking. If pushed to think more, some may agree
that there is skill in being a good communicator or a good leader. Pushed further, some might
agree that there is skill in being a doctor, a lawyer, or a judge. If asked to define the skills of
being a judge, most people are likely to use words like fairness or impartiality and leave it at
that. They may go on to talk about being a good listener or keeping control of a courtroom.
They would be correct. Those are some of the skills of judging, but there are others. This
article sets out how the National Judicial Institute (NJI) identifies judicial skills and how it
teaches those skills to Canadian judges.
Judicial Training in Canada
First, some context about the NJI. The NJI is a Canadian not-for-profit that teaches
Canadian judges and works internationally with other judicial institutes on a project basis.
Canada is a federal state and becoming multi-jural. Nine provinces and three territories are
common law jurisdictions, and Québec is a mixed system (a civil law jurisdiction for most
non-criminal matters, but for some things like criminal law, a common law system). More
and more, Canadian systems are acknowledging the need to incorporate Indigenous legal
principles into the broader Canadian context. The art of how to do that is a work in progress.
Some judges are appointed by the federal government, while others are appointed by
provincial or territorial governments. Delineating the jurisdiction between federal judges and
provincial and territorial judges is complicated and should not be confused with the federal
and state division of judiciaries in the United States. Most of the funding for the NJI comes
from the federal government, which in turn means that most of its judicial education is
targeted at federally appointed judges. The NJI began its work in 1988 and now delivers
about 200 days of education per year to courts across Canada. It has a growing digital
presence, accelerated by the past two years of almost exclusively on-line learning.

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