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Honouring Justice Cromwell: Notes on a Life in Law

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Only one week into classes and this year is already shaping up to be an unforgettable one in terms of visitors to Queen’s Law. This past weekend Queen’s hosted a symposium dedicated to the Honourable Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell was the first ever Queen’s Law alumnus appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada and began his distinguished career by practicing law in Kingston.

This weekend’s activities were inspired by an upcoming special edition of the Supreme Court of Canada Law Review dedicated to Cromwell’s judicial legacy that will be published in November. The majority of the crowd was composed of Queen’s Law alumni, the event having been planned to coincide with the Queen’s Law homecoming events, though there were a handful of students in the crowds excited to hear the speakers shed light on the life and legacy of the guest of honour, as well as remarks from the former Supreme Court of Canada justice himself.

The symposium included 5 speakers who spoke various aspects of Cromwell’s work. Professor Stephen Coughlan of Dalhousie Law spoke to Cromwell as a person and noted that he inspired Coughlan’s life motto: “If Tom Cromwell invites you to do something, do it”. The audience laughed, a reaction common throughout the presentations as the speakers spoke with humour and wit. Secondly, the Honorable John Evans, a former Federal Court of Appeal judge, spoke to the contributions Cromwell has made to Administrative Law.  This was followed by our own Professor Lisa Kerr, who spoke to his contributions in the area of public interest standing. Kerr noted that Justice Cromwell had accomplished what she referred to as a “judicial fantasy” – which is to say that he made a significant change to the law whilst simultaneously appearing to do nothing at all – by reformulating the test for public interest standing despite changing only two words. Next, Owen Rees spoke to Cromwell’s advances in digital privacy and lastly Michele Leering spoke to Cromwell’s inspirational leadership in access to justice issues.

One thing that came across from all speakers was the great respect and compassion Cromwell has for others. Coughlan spoke to his ability to make anyone feel important and his unerring confidence in other people, while Kerr acknowledged that the overarching themes in his paradigm shifting decision in Downtown Eastside Sex Workers United Against Violence and Sheryl Kiselbach v Canada (Attorney General), 2012 SCC 45 were pragmatism and respect. This decency came through not only in the words of the invited speakers, but also when Cromwell himself addressed the audience.

Although the majority of the audience were Queen’s Law alumni, Cromwell took the time to answer that timeless question asked of almost every speaker who graces our halls with their presence – what advice would you give to current law students. Without prompting, the former Supreme Court justice gave his advice and, interestingly, gave a variation of what Coughlan had said earlier: Say yes whenever you can because it will open to door to amazing opportunities (though he acknowledged that you will likely get less sleep).

Despite his hefty stature in the legal profession, Justice Cromwell came across as a thoughtful, personable, and accessible figure, who interacted with the audience with humility and respect.

Given that Queen’s Law has just welcomed a new class of 1L students, I think it is best to end off with the fact that even Cromwell, whose name we will all read often during our education and our careers, had times of doubt when he was in law school. He ended the day by noting that one tends to enter Queen’s Law wondering if they will find a place in the legal world – and that he trusts that the mission of the law school remains focused on making students feel like the answer to that question is yes. Because the answer is yes. There is a place for all of us in this profession.

Kali Larsen (3L) is News Editor for Juris Diction


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