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How Administrative Law LLM Instructor Ronda Bessner Got Hooked on Public Inquiries

February 16, 2024


When Ronda Bessner got her first taste of a public inquiry, she knew it would not be her last.  

“I was hooked, right from the start,” says Bessner, who took up her original role as senior legal analyst at the Royal Commission on the Blood System in Canada in 1994, remaining in the post until 1997, when Justice Horace Krever delivered the final report on the tainted blood scandal that saw thousands of people infected with HIV and hepatitis C.

But it didn’t take that long for Bessner to get a sense of the unique position public inquiries occupy in the field of administrative law and the potential that comes with their intrinsic transparency and independence from government.

“There are significant benefits to them: a public inquiry investigates serious matters of public concern and makes findings on the particular issues in its mandate and it educates the public on these issues, whether it is a mine explosion, contaminated drinking water, acts of terrorism, Indigenous issues, or unethical acts of public officials. Inquiries result in accountability, healing to those affected and, importantly, commissioners of public inquiries make recommendations to help ensure that this kind of disaster, accident, or issue of public concern doesn’t occur again,” Bessner says. “New legislative provisions and statutes have been enacted, new policies have been implemented and new training centres have been established as a result of public inquiries in this country.”

Three decades on from that first exposure, Bessner’s extensive resume of public inquiry work reads like a tour of the most calamitous and controversial landmark moments in recent Canadian history.

That includes contributions to the Ipperwash Public Inquiry, the Walkerton Public Inquiry, the Toronto Computer Leasing Inquiry and the Collingwood Inquiry. Most recently, Bessner acted as senior legal advisor to the three commissioners in the Mass Casualty Commission established in Nova Scotia following this country’s most lethal mass shooting in April 2020.

“These inquiries all resulted in important recommendations to the federal, provincial, or municipal government that called the inquiry, many of which have been implemented,” she says. “I feel so fortunate to have worked on these public issues, with the judges and other commissioners who led these inquiries, as well as with commission counsel and other members of the commission team.”   

Bessner, who teaches a graduate course on Public Inquiries offered as part of Osgoode’s Professional LLM in Administrative Law, will share some of the insights she has gleaned over the years in the second edition of her book, Public Inquiries in Canada: Law and Practice.

Both editions were co-authored and co-edited with Susan Lightstone, who has presented on effective decision writing at OsgoodePD programs and who for many years was involved in educational programming for judges and justices of the peace at the Ontario Court of Justice as well as for Ontario Crown prosecutors. Like Bessner, Lightstone served as an adjudicator (lawyer member) for many years on the Ontario Consent and Capacity Board.

Drawn to social justice issues from a young age, Bessner set her sights on the legal profession in high school and received joint law degrees from McGill University’s civil law and common law program.

After earning an LLM at Harvard University, Bessner joined the faculty of a Canadian law school in 1987 to teach criminal law and evidence, before accepting a position as counsel to the Ontario Law Reform Commission, working under future Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella.

She has taught at several Ontario law schools throughout her career, including courses on public inquiries, youth justice and evidence. Bessner has published numerous articles in legal journals, she has spoken at many legal conferences and has been interviewed by the media on public inquiries and other legal topics.

Although she didn’t know it at the time, her role as counsel at the Ontario Law Reform Commission (OLRC) helped lay the foundation of Bessner’s later work on public inquiries, by providing her with an opportunity to go into great depth on a variety of legal topics.  

“I had the opportunity to write inter-disciplinary reports on subjects such as child witnesses, drug and alcohol testing in the workplace, as well as evaluating damages for environmental harm (co-authored),” Bessner says.

Many of the recommendations in OLRC reports have been implemented by the government and other institutions, she adds.

In the last decade, Bessner has also played a role in nurturing the next generation of public inquiry lawyers through both her written work and her teaching.

Bessner originally developed her public inquiry class for JD students at Osgoode Hall Law School, before adapting the course for the Administrative Law LLM that she first taught in 2015. Despite their long history – this country’s public inquiry laws can trace a fairly straight line back to British Royal Commissions before Confederation – Bessner’s course often marks her students’ first real contact with this area of administrative law.

“Public inquiries are established only periodically by government, with the result that many people in the legal profession are not exposed to this non-adversarial, inquisitorial process. Public inquiries seek to develop a collaborative approach with the participants and the lawyers representing parties, which include the government, institutions and affected individuals, as it fulfills its mandate,” she says.

By contrast to the narrow issues between adversarial parties in criminal prosecutions and civil trials, Bessner explains that commissioners are tasked with addressing broader systemic and institutional questions. Commissioners are inquisitorial and do not make findings of criminal or civil liability.

“Public inquiry statutes provide commissioners with the authority to subpoena documents and compel testimony from witnesses in their investigations, which include senior government officials, up to and including the prime minister,” Bessner said.

For example, Prime Minister Trudeau and members of his Cabinet testified at the Public Order Emergency Commission, former Prime Minister Mulroney provided testimony at the Oliphant Inquiry, the Ontario Attorney General testified at the Ipperwash Inquiry and the Commissioner of the RCMP gave evidence at the Mass Casualty Commission.

“These statutory powers enable the commission team to conduct an in depth and thorough examination of the systemic and institutional issues” Bessner explains.

In the second edition of their book, Bessner and Lightstone look at developments in the field since it was first published in 2017. This includes ways to promote the expeditiousness, efficiency and transparency of inquiries, foster public participation and involvement, as well as to ensure that inquiries are conducted in accordance with principles of procedural fairness.

New developments in participation, the use of foundation documents, sworn affidavits and witness panels to reduce the number of hours of oral testimony of witnesses, the development of trauma-informed approaches in public inquiries, creative approaches of the investigative and policy arms of the inquiry, counselling to those affected and the impact of technology on inquiries, are some of the topics that are examined in the second edition.

In addition, the authors outline best practices to promote the implementation of recommendations and ways to promote the success of the public inquiry. They also discuss approaches to minimize the chances of judicial review. A new chapter compares other Commonwealth countries’ experiences with public inquiries, in particular the United Kingdom and Australia, who share similar public inquiry legislation and rules of procedure and practice.

“The book takes you from the establishment of a public inquiry, all the way through to the submission of the final report to government and the aftermath,” Bessner says. “For anyone who becomes involved in a public inquiry, whether you’re a commissioner, commission counsel, policy analyst, an investigator, witness including an expert witness, counsel to a party,  a media consultant, or a counsellor, this book will assist you from the inception of the calling of an inquiry to the submission of the final report to government on its findings of fact and recommendations on significant issues of public concern.”

Photography Credit: Phillipa C Photography.

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