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B.C.'s retiring top judge looks back on a half-century in law

Chief Justice of B.C. Robert Bauman is hanging up his robes Oct. 1.
Chief Justice of British Columbia Robert Bauman.

After 14 years as British Columbia’s senior jurist, Chief Justice of B.C. Robert Bauman is hanging up his robes Oct. 1.

Actually, he may be recycling his robes but we’ll get to that.

In his position as the 13th ‘chief,’ Bauman is also the chief justice of the B.C. Court of Appeal, a position he has held since September 2013. In that capacity, he's also chief justice of the Court of Appeal for the Yukon.

He succeeded former chief justice Lance Finch, following in illustrious footsteps of former holders of the office, including former chief justice of Canada Beverley McLachlin.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper appointed Bauman to the position following his 13 years on the province’s trial and appeal courts. The move came after being chief justice of B.C. Supreme Court, a position he took in September 2009 after a stint as an appeal court justice.

In an interview with Glacier Media, Bauman said he hopes he’s been able to put a public face on the province’s high courts. He said such a profile is important so that the public has an understanding of what the courts do, and can have faith in the system.

Bauman, 73, hails from Toronto but moved to Montreal as a young boy. There, he attended Loyola High School and Loyola College.

Soon, he obtained a degree in history from the University of Western Ontario. Following his dreams, he attended the University of Toronto Law School. It was there he fell in love with his wife of 35 years, Sue, with whom he has two sons (he performed both their marriages).

With a law degree under his belt, Bauman looked west, setting his eyes on Prince George to begin practicing.

He became a partner at Wilson King, the firm founded by the father of J.O. Wilson, the eighth chief justice of the Supreme Court of B.C.

In 1978, he joined Kelowna’s Galt Wilson firm to practice under the firm name of Wilson Bauman.

Despite being early in his career, Bauman had already gained a reputation for administrative law and local government law.

Four years later, the family was on the move again, this time to Vancouver, where he joined the firm of Bull Housser and Tupper, practicing there for 14 years.

The criminal cases

Asked what cases captured his mind over the years, Bauman said such cases were mostly criminal ones.

“They’re all interesting,” he said. “They’re interesting because they’re important to the people in front of you.”

Still, Bauman singles out a few: the trial of Ravinder Singh “Robbie” Soomel for murder; the killing of Reena Virk by a group of teens; the fundamentalist Bountiful, B.C. Mormon polygamy constitutional case; and the Basi-Virk legal fees case connected to the 2003 sale of B.C.  Rail to Canadian National.

Soomel murdered Gurpreet Singh Sohi on Sept. 14, 2000.

He was convicted in 2003.

A B.C. Court of Appeal decision said Soomel “was 20 years old, he was the leader of a planned execution, organizing and enlisting four accomplices to murder Mr. Sohi, a rival drug dealer who was also only 20 years old.”

Soomel was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole for 25 years, a sentence he appealed after serving 18 years.

“That was an awful case,” Bauman said.

Fourteen-year-old Reena Virk was brutally beaten and then killed under Victoria’s Craigflower Bridge in 1997. 

“After being assaulted by a group of eight teenagers under the south end of the bridge, Ms. Virk made her way across the bridge to the north end, There, she was again attacked, and then drowned in the Gorge waterway," one court ruling said.

One of those teens was Kelly Ellard. In 2005, Bauman sentenced her to life in prison calling Virk’s killing a senseless and remorseless crime.

He called the case “very difficult,” and said the teens beat Virk “violently and brutally over a couple of hours.” Bauman told Glacier Media the cases that haunt him are “the random acts of violence.”

However, it’s not all crime. Bauman said family law cases can be hard on a judge.

“Some of the family law cases were difficult,” he said. “Deciding who gets what, deciding if mom or dad can move away.”

Changes in the courts

Bauman isn't keen on calling the courts hidebound. Rather, he prefers calling them a conservative institution.

“We are methodical in adopting change,” he said, “because the traditions we are following are longstanding and stood the test of time."

That said, Bauman noted the COVID-19 pandemic made it necessary for changes to happen fast in order for the courts to keep functioning.

The courts were back and functioning within two and a half weeks of the 2020 shutdown, he said, adding judges moved to adopt new technology and lawyers embraced electronic filing systems.

When it comes to the legal profession, he said things hadn’t changed for about a century when he was a young lawyer.

Now, he said, the pressures are high. Getting into scarce law school positions is a challenge and technology means lawyers are never far from the office.

“They’ve got challenges I never saw,” he said.

Bauman remains watchful yet fascinated on the issue of the use of artificial intelligence in the courts and practice of law. 

“I’m sure it offers all kinds of promise,” he said, adding opportunities to misuse the technology also remain.

Education and openness

Bauman is alarmed by polls indicating a low level of confidence in the courts. He said he understands people are feeling frustrated.

“I think it’s unfair at times,” he said, adding distrust in institutions is not uncommon.

Serving on a jury could change people’s minds, he said.

“They’re walking a mile in our shoes,” he said. “All of a sudden, their attitude changes. They see how hard it is to take it all in.”

Bauman recalled walking into a jury room to find a juror crying as they made a decision about another person’s life.

“I can see they have a newfound respect for what we do.” 

Bauman said public education about how the courts operate is important. He’s been open to journalists and others wanting to meet with him to discuss how the courts work.

“I’m a frank and candid person,” he said. “I try to answer questions directly.”

As in so many facets of life, the judge said, it comes down to communication and relationships.

“If you know each other and respect each other, life is much simpler,” he said. "The more that people understand how the system works . . . the more they understand what we do.”

Still, it’s not just education on the home front where Bauman's been involved.

In conjunction with the National Justice Institute and Global Affairs Canada, he’s been to Ukraine assisting judges there on issues of judicial independence, corruption and writing.


As for his robes, Bauman said retiring judges give them away for new judges.

The cost of the silk robes: about $4,000.

Meanwhile, packing boxes are scattered about his spacious, light-filled office at the Vancouver Law Courts.

With the courts moving into his rear-view mirror, Glacier Media asked Bauman what his plans for the future are.

“I’m reading some books,” he said with a grin. “Maybe go for a walk.”

Some of those walks may include golf, an area where he wants to hone his skills.