Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta Justice James T. Neilson comes by his nickname, Gentleman Jim, honestly.
Justice Neilson - who was appointed to the Bench as a QB judge in Edmonton on May 4, 2018, and officially sworn in at a September 21 ceremony - contributed as a lawyer to the law and its practice and to the pursuit of justice in multiple ways.
“I have always adhered to the importance of courtesy and civility in the practice of law towards clients, opposing counsel and their clients and to my colleagues and employees,” says Justice Neilson. “To that end, I hope that I have been a positive role model for other lawyers.”
The former long-time civil litigator also served the profession in an official capacity in a number of roles and contributed to legal education as both a speaker and a participant with various organizations. As well, he acted as an in-house mentor and advisor on ethics and legal practice.
“It is essential to uphold the responsibilities and to respect the privileges we have as a self-governing profession,” says Justice Neilson.
The Edmonton grandfather, who was born in Paris, Ontario and graduated with Honours from Trinity College, University of Toronto, before earning his law degree at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University in Toronto, has also given back to society over the years through his involvement with many community organizations.
During summer breaks in law school, Justice Neilson managed a camp for children with cystic fibrosis and he was also a Big Brother volunteer for a young boy from a difficult family circumstance while a young lawyer. As well, as Chair of the Edmonton Community Foundation distribution committee, he was exposed to a broad range of not-for-profit organizations applying for much-needed funding to support their good work in the areas of health, education, social services and culture.
After articling in Toronto, Justice Neilson joined Parlee McLaws LLP in Edmonton in 1981 and worked there, practising civil litigation, until his 2018 appointment as a QB Justice. Within that timeframe, he was on the executive of the Edmonton Bar Association, including serving as its president. He was also a member of the Legal Archives Society of Alberta’s Board of Directors, worked pro bono for both the Edmonton Community Legal Centre and as Civil Court Duty Counsel and served on various Law Society of Alberta committees.
Justice Neilson was awarded a Certificate in Arbitration by the ADR Institute of Canada in 2013 and was designated a Qualified Arbitrator, also by the ADR Institute of Canada, in 2016.
During his lengthy legal career, he made numerous appearances in various levels of court and conducted trials involving commercial disputes and complex property loss, product liability, personal injury and wrongful death claims. He also represented more than 100 Residential School survivors, advancing compensation claims for sexual and physical abuse in the Independent Assessment Process, pursuant to the residential schools class action settlement
Justice Neilson believes it is essential for judges in Canada to be aware of the variety and diversity of Canadians and to be knowledgeable of their unique perspectives and says he can rely on the experience he garnered as a litigation lawyer representing clients from many walks of life, including the world of commerce, the professions and ordinary citizens.
“Each case has been unique, employing my skills as a legal analysist. But the practice of law is also a ‘people business,’ and I have been able to draw on my experience working with disadvantaged people who were facing challenges and required assistance, support and guidance,” he says. “In my view, a judge must be able to understand and empathize with the parties who come before the Court for resolution of their disputes.”
Justice Neilson believes he has the necessary personal qualities, professional skills and abilities, and life experiences to equip himself for the role of a judge.
“I am patient, courteous and objective, yet capable of empathy for other people’s difficult circumstances. I am capable of deciding cases fairly and impartially. My experience in litigation, mediation and arbitration has given me skills which are directly relevant to the duties of a judge,” he says.