The Five-Judge Myth

How many Supreme Court judges does it take to decide a civil law appeal?

By Peter McCormick

A defining aspect of the Canadian legal system is its bijuralism: Quebec’s civil law system is distinctly different from the English-derived common law of the other provinces. The federal-provincial division of powers which assigns to the provincial legislatures jurisdiction over “property and civil rights within the province” is its formal entrenchment. There are also structural accommodations, one of the most important of which is the composition of the Supreme Court.  Alone among the provinces, Quebec is guaranteed a minimum share of the Court’s membership. One third of the judges (two of six in 1867, three of nine since 1949) must be appointed from the bar or the judiciary of Quebec, which is to say that they must be experienced in the civil law.

On the face of it, this is not enough; it does not preclude the possibility of a common law majority that persistently out-votes its civil law minority and steadily erodes this bijuralism. Its impact has therefore been reinforced by a long-established practice. Peter Hogg describes it as follows: “since 1949 … it has been possible to assemble a quorum of five judges with a majority of civilians” with the result that “(t)his is now the usual composition of the bench when the Court hears a civil law appeal from Quebec.” (Hogg, Constitutional Law of Canada (various editions), Chapter 8.5(a).) Assuming a unified trio of civilian judges – a single defection can be decisive – it is both an acknowledgement and an effective protection of Quebec’s civil law uniqueness.  The recent controversy over the Nadon appointment served once again to highlight the importance of demonstrable and recent civil law experience for those Quebec judges.  As a student, years ago, I was impressed by the elegance of this “five-judge” solution; as a professor, I tried to ensure that my students appreciated it as well.

However, there is another story that we have been telling about the Supreme Court, and that is the story of a steady move toward larger panels.  The Supreme Court Act permits panels of various sizes, but five judge panels continued to dominate even after the enlargement of the Court to nine members in 1949.  In this context, a slight tweak of the rules for striking the panels for civilian appeals was procedurally simple, almost invisible, and reliably consequential.  Ever since the great watershed of the Laskin Court, however, panels have been getting steadily larger.  On the Lamer Court, the default was already seven judges, with the more important issues (such as the growing number of constitutional cases) assigned to larger panels and only the more routine cases (such as appeals by right) going to smaller ones.  Under McLachlin, this trend has continued, such that nine-judge panels are now the most common and five-judge panels have become unusual, used for only one reserved judgement in every thirty.


It is not easy to reconcile this long-term trend toward large panels with a five-judge rule for civil appeals.  This post reports on my own investigation of these two on-the-face-of-it contradictory generalizations, focusing initially on the McLachlin Court.  On my findings, it is the “larger panels” generalization that very much prevails.  The “five-judge” practice of Quebec exceptionalism has all but disappeared.

The first question is how to objectively identify the set of civil law appeals, and the Supreme Court itself has provided the most obvious solution: the judge-written headnotes that lead off every decision.  If those included specific mention of either or both of the Civil Code of Quebec and the Code of Civil Procedure, then I treated it as a civilian appeal.  (A further forty cases listed these statutes among their citations without any headnote notation, but I did not treat citation alone as justifying their inclusion.)  Limiting the inquiry to reserved judgments only, this gave me fifty-five civil law cases, for an average of about three per year.

How many of these were decided by five judge panels?  Only five – one in every eleven, which is to say one every three or four years.  Thirty-two went to seven judge panels, and nineteen to full-court nine judge panels. The average panel size was 7.5, only slightly below the McLachlin Court average of 7.9 for all reserved judgments.  The fact that it is lower at all may suggest a residual tug of the older “five-judge” rule, but if so it is a small tug indeed.

Even more surprising, only a single one of those five judge panels included all three Quebec judges, guaranteeing that a united set of Quebec civilians would prevail over their common law colleagues.  More remarkably yet, this was balanced by a single example at the opposite extreme — a panel with no Quebec judges at all.  A panel small enough that the Quebec judges can make up a majority is of course also small enough that the Quebec judges can be left out altogether.  The five-judge rule would have led us to expect that these five panels would have included a total of fifteen Quebec judges and ten of their common law colleagues; in practice, they included only eight, well below the common law total of seventeen.  Further to punctuate the point, four of the five examples were from the first four years of the McLachlin Court, and the single more recent example was the “no Quebec judges” panel.


Comparing eighteen years of McLachlin with eighteen months of Wagner calls for caution, but there has been no sign of a reversal of the above patterns.  To date, the Wagner Court has dealt with seven civilian appeals, some of which were consequential; five were decided by panels of nine and two by panels of seven.  There was no sign of the five-judge practice, no indication that these appeals are treated differently in this respect from the broad run of reserved decisions.  The five-judge rule is dead; it seems to have breathed its last in 2004.

But all is not lost.  Quebec judges may have been under-represented on the vanishing smaller panels and risk being outvoted on the larger ones, but they do deliver most of the judgments – fifty-one of the McLachlin Court’s fifty-five and five of the Wagner Court’s seven for an overall total of fifty-six out of sixty-two, about ninety per cent. There has long been a significant “homer” tendency on the Supreme Court in assigning the judgment – an appeal coming from your own province roughly doubles your chances – but the tendency is even stronger for Quebec civil appeals.  Compared with the five-judge rule, this may well be a less robust and less compelling institutional recognition of Quebec exceptionalism, but it is where the empirical evidence takes us.  We should remember, however, that when the Supreme Court was first established it was the spectre of common law judges deciding civil code issues that worried Quebec. “It only happens one time in every ten” may not be a completely reassuring response now that civilian judges are now outnumbered on every panel.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

One thought on “The Five-Judge Myth”

  1. Interesting. I am not sure to what extent Code of Civil Procedure really “counts” as civil law though (except in name). The structure of the courts is a Common Law structure, the rules of evidence are Common Law rules as well as most of the procedural stuff.

    This being said, I think language plays a really important (though underappreciated) role in terms of panel size and composition. During the period 2000-2013 of the McLachlin Court, Federal law cases (i.e. cases for which all judges have a smilar training) from Quebec were heard on average by panels of 7,77 judges while they were heard by panels of 7,90 judges for cases from the ROC. The differences are even starker in previous Courts which were arguably much less bilingual than the McLachlin court was. The civil/common law distinction does not hold up as a plausible explanation in these cases.
    (See Jean-Christophe Bédard-Rubin & Tiago Rubin, “Assessing the Impact of Unilingualism at the Supreme Court of Canada: Panel Composition, Assertiveness, Caseload and Deference”, (2018) 55:3 Osgoode Hall LJ 715: https://digitalcommons.osgoode.yorku.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3351&context=ohlj)

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