Court of King’s Bench of Alberta Justice Barbara Johnston appeared as counsel before all levels of court during her more than 26 years in private practice at leading national law firms.
Her experience ranged from running trials and arguing complex applications to arguing before the Court of Appeal of Alberta and the Supreme Court of Canada.
The Calgary-based jurist — who was appointed to the Bench on April 3, 2020 — also ran hearings and argued applications before the Labour Relations Board, Human Rights Tribunals, Boards of Arbitration and the Privacy Commission in a wide array of areas including labour, employment, privacy, human rights, occupational health and safety, constitutional, commercial litigation and administrative law.
Several of the cases had multiple proceedings and engaged evolving or emerging areas of the law with complex and novel legal issues, and with her extensive experience in mediation and arbitration, the cases often involved alternate forms of dispute resolution.
Justice Johnston’s solicitor practice also gave her significant exposure to corporate law and mergers and acquisitions, and she worked as part of a team advising on labour, employment and privacy implications on mergers and acquisitions and negotiating and drafting agreements.
“In these areas of practice, I was exposed to all aspects of society and all manner of litigants,” she says. “In particular, in addition to dealing with sophisticated opposing counsel and clients, I dealt with numerous self-represented litigants, with union representatives, with occupational workers and with senior executives.”
Justice Johnston’s work with parties to collective agreements also gave her insight into the need for working out disagreements while continuing their relationships into the future.
“I understand the implications of actions and decisions on long term relationships between parties,” she says. “This requires a delicate balance between compromise and taking strong positions on adversarial issues.”
As her areas of practice were premised on a balancing of interests and reasonableness and the cases often involved multiple stakeholders with important but competing interests, she achieved the ability to weigh multiple perspectives and interests.
“Through this lens, I understand that disputes, although they may seem straight forward, can also have long term unanticipated consequences,” she says.
Justice Johnston believes one of her most significant contributions as a lawyer to the law and the pursuit of justice was her role in trying to obtain clarity in the interpretation and application of legislation and ensuring Courts consider the larger context of decisions.
She notes she represented interveners in significant cases where the implications of a decision may not be limited to the parties of the action and pro-actively argued the importance of including the safety imperative in any analysis of human rights, labour and privacy law.
“Without taking a position on the merits, I attempted to provide the Courts with unique perspective and insight into the broader implications of the case,” says Justice Johnston.
She also notes she respectfully challenged decisions where the outcomes or actions did not appear consistent with legislative intent or where there was uncertainty in the application of legislation.
Justice Johnston graduated from the University of Alberta with a Bachelor of Arts (History and Economics) in 1990, and then attended the Faculty of Law at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, where she earned an LLB in 1993. She also earned a Master of Laws at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto in 2009.
Justice Johnston articled at what was then Milner Fenerty in 1993-1994 and was admitted to the Alberta Bar on July 29, 1994. She then joined Milner Fenerty, which is now Dentons Canada LLP, as an associate, and made partner in 2000. In 2006 she joined Stikeman Elliott LLP, where she was a partner and head of its Calgary Labour and Employment Group. In 2011, she returned to Dentons Canada LLP to assume the role of the National Chair of the Labour and Employment Group.
During her time as a lawyer, Justice Johnston also volunteered her service in both the legal community and non-legal community, including many organizations that address the needs of the more vulnerable members of society. As well, she was a member and/or held office with numerous legal and civic groups.
In 2014 she was appointed Queen’s (now King’s) Counsel. She was also amongst the first Canadian women to be inducted as a Fellow of the (U.S.) College of Labor and Employment Lawyers. She also served as the Canadian President of the Canadian Association of Counsel to Employers.
During her practice she was consistently recognized as a leading practitioner by Lexpert, Best Lawyers, Acritas Star Lawyers, and Legal 500. As well, she was received recognition by Lexpert as a Top 40 Leading Canadian Lawyer, as a Leading US/Canada Cross Border Litigation Lawyer and in 2018 she was awarded the Lexpert Zenith Award for Mid- Market Excellence. She also achieved a Band 1 ranking from Chambers Global.
“My experience in the legal practice and the experience I gained from my community service provided me with great insight into the diversity of society and the unique perspectives and competing needs of Canadians,” she says. “I believe that empathy and understanding of diverse societal interests is an important attribute for a member of our judiciary.”