Skip to content

Women in Law: Justice Jane Kelly has the pedigree for spot on the bench

|Written By Robert Todd

Justice Jane Kelly has faced some serious challenges in her career - on the team defending former press baron Conrad Black, for example - but calls the transition to her current role as a Superior Court judge the most daunting.

‘Right now, I would have to say, being a Superior Court judge is the most challenging aspect of my career so far,’ says Justice Jane Kelly.

“Listening to people advance their cases, being patient, trying to give the considered thought and reasoning they expect from us,” she says in explaining the types of issues she’s dealing with.

“Right now, I would have to say, being a Superior Court judge is the most challenging aspect of my career so far.”

While Kelly admits her new job - which she was appointed to in June - is a test, it’s tough to imagine someone with a better pedigree to assume a spot on the bench.

The 45-year-old married mother of two got her first taste of the law from her father, Oshawa personal injury and criminal law lawyer Terry Kelly. She remembers that many of the murder cases her father worked on garnered big media attention in the Oshawa area, and says that aspect of the law interested her from a young age.

“I remember definitely being intrigued by what he was doing in that regard,” says Kelly, adding she leafed through many of the cases her father brought home to work on. “The personal injury business didn’t interest me as much, because there wasn’t lively discussion at our dinner table about personal injury cases.”

Kelly was so interested, in fact, that she sometimes went to court as a spectator, especially when her dad was addressing a jury. She dropped her early dream of becoming a teacher at age seven or eight and focused on becoming a lawyer, says Kelly.

Her father’s experience came in handy when it came time for Kelly to article after receiving her law degree from the University of New Brunswick in 1988.

“Oshawa is a small city to some degree, and he was of the view that Oshawa was only big enough for one Kelly,” she says. “So he encouraged me to come to Toronto.”

She went through the usual process of applying to big Toronto firms, and eventually accepted an offer from Fasken & Calvin, and later returned to the firm, then called Fasken Campbell Godfrey, after her 1990 call to the bar.

“When I asked my dad for advice on which [of the big firms] I should choose, it was a no-brainer for him,” recalls Kelly. “He said you should go to Fasken & Calvin because there were so many great litigators there.”

She went on to spend four years in the firm’s litigation department, working with the likes of Bob Tuer, Doug Hunt, Jim Grout, John Campion and now-Court of Appeal Justice Eleanore Cronk.

One of her most important experiences at Faskens was working as co-counsel with Hunt on the Hryciuk inquiry. During that stint, Scarborough Crown Attorney Mary Hall invited Kelly to take a leave of absence and work as an assistant Crown attorney. Kelly accepted the offer, and eventually decided not to return to Faskens.

While working for the Crown, Kelly dealt mainly with sexual assault prosecutions, and became a go-to counsel for fraud cases. That prompted her to move on and establish her own criminal defence practice with Glen Jennings in Toronto, and she also presented cases at administrative tribunals.

The firm existed as Kelly Jennings from 1996 to 2001, Kelly Jennings and Lacy from 2001 to 2004 with the addition of Michael Lacy, and later as Kelly & Lacy.

She also worked on a contract basis with Toronto defence lawyer Edward Greenspan, taking on big cases such as The Law Society of Upper Canada v. Baker, R v. Drabinsky et. al., and U.S.A. v. Black et. al.

Kelly says she was struck by the manner in which U.S. District Court Judge Amy St. Eve handled the complex Black case earlier this year.

“She was a great role model. She was respectful of counsel, but kept things moving along,” says Kelly. “It was a difficult case because there were so many lawyers involved, but it never seemed that it really troubled her. She was in control of the courtroom.”

After returning to Canada from the Black case, Kelly says it was time for a new challenge. She admits the thought of becoming a judge was attractive.

“It was in the back of my mind,” she says. “Because clearly based on my experience I either couldn’t keep a job or I was looking for something different.”

As Kelly goes through the growing pains attached to any job switch, she has relied on her colleagues to ease the burden.

“I’m finding the camaraderie among the Superior Court judges phenomenal,” she says. “Everybody, including the Chief Justice Heather Smith, the Associate Chief Justice Doug Cunningham; our Regional Senior Justice Ed Then, is incredibly supportive. But more importantly, the people who are my colleagues, there’s not a single person I’ve met who hasn’t said, ‘Please contact me if you have any questions.’

“So there is definitely a lot of support from my colleagues.”

Kelly’s transition is made more overwhelming by the fact that she’s juggling it with raising two young children, a seven-year-old boy and two-year-old girl. She credits husband Donald Bannister for the extra work he’s put in, especially during stints like the Black case when she wasn’t around to help out.

Most of her spare time is spent with the family, she says, with summers spent relaxing at their cottage in Georgian Bay and winters hitting the slopes at Caledon Ski Club.

Kelly offers the following pearl of wisdom to other female lawyers looking to achieve their own definition of success within the profession: “I would tell them to be confident in what they want. For instance, if they want to work in a big firm, be confident about what they impose on themselves.

“You don’t have to be a member of every committee, in my respectful view. You don’t have to necessarily be on the partnership track to attract good work. You can, in this day in age, hopefully negotiate something with a larger firm that is suitable for you. Because at the end of the day, there’s more to life than working in an office in a tower.”

This is the sixth in our Women in Law series that is running in Law Times, featuring profiles of female lawyers from around the province.

cover image


Subscribers get early and easy access to Law Times.

Law Times Poll

Ontario’s recent provincial budget calls for changes in benefits for catastrophically injured patients, including a ‘return to the default benefit limit of $2 million for those who are catastrophically injured in an accident, after it was previously reduced to $1 million in 2016.’ Do you agree with this shift?