Vancouver personal-injury lawyer Manjot Hallen advocates for diverse judiciary in B.C.

He sees some progress being made, but adds that there's still a ways to go before broader society is truly reflected on the bench of B.C.'s superior courts

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      Manjot Hallen has two major passions as a lawyer. One is defending injury victims as a partner at Warnett Hallen. The second is promoting greater diversity in the legal profession and, in particular, among the judiciary.

      Hallen also wants to improve the image of the South Asian community, which is repeatedly tarnished with negative media coverage as a result of gang conflicts in Metro Vancouver.

      “There are more lawyers, doctors, and engineers who are South Asian and from the Sikh community than there are gangsters, if you just do the straight math,” Hallen recently told the Straight by phone. “One thing we can be doing is highlighting these individuals and highlighting the contributions that they make to British Columbia rather than focusing on the negative.”

      He practises what he preaches as the chair of the B.C. Children's Hospital A Night of Miracles Gala.

      Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently appointed a judge of South Asian ancestry, Mahmud Jamal, to the Supreme Court of Canada. While Hallen applauded that move, he also acknowledged that B.C.’s superior courts still have a vast majority of judges with anglicized names.

      In fact, there are relatively few superior court judges of Indigenous, South Asian, Chinese, Latin American, or African ancestry—something pointed out last December in a pair of tweets by Vancouver lawyer Veronica Cheng.

      Hallen is a member of the South Asian Bar Association, which advocates for greater diversity at all levels of the legal profession, including the judiciary.

      “The good news is that we’ve done better in recent years and we’re continuing to work toward that,” Hallen said. “But are we there yet? No. I think if you ask the courts—if you ask every level of government—they’ll agree with us that we’re not there yet.”

      This year, Leonard Marchand became the first Indigenous justice appointed to the B.C. Court of Appeal, which is the province’s highest court. It’s a sign that the federal government is promoting more diversity on the bench.

      However, this appointment will barely put a dent in overcoming perceptions created by a photo of the B.C. Court of Appeal justices in its 2020 annual report—it’s a sea of white faces.

      The B.C. Court of Appeal's most recent annual report revealed, through this photo, how little racial diversity there is on the benc of B.C.'s highest court.
      B.C. Court of Appeal

      There’s more diversity at the Supreme Court level, with justices having surnames such as Ahmad, Basran, Choi, Dley, Iyer, Masuhara, Sharma, and Shergill.

      However, nonwhite and openly LGBT+ judges are still relatively rare in B.C. Supreme Court, which is the province’s highest trial court.

      “The ideal thing would be to have a more diverse judiciary that would be able to relate to those different backgrounds and different upbringings that people may have,” Hallen said.

      “I personally would like to see a more diverse judiciary with different ethnic backgrounds," he continued. "I would like to see more women in the judiciary, and I’d like to see members of the LGBTQ community, more of them, on the bench as well.”

      In 2017, the Liberal government appointed Palbinder Shergill to the bench of the B.C. Supreme Court, making her the first judge to wear a turban in Canadian history.

      Standing up for victims 

      Hallen noted that he was attracted to practising law because he was “always sort of an underdog” growing up in Richmond and Surrey as a South Asian Canadian in the 1990s.

      “It was a natural fit for me to represent accident victims, who really are in a situation where they’re David taking on the Goliath of a huge multimillion-dollar insurance company,” he said. “It’s something I’m quite passionate about: being able to help people in that situation.”

      When asked if there are any misconceptions about personal-injury lawyers, Hallen replied that it’s a myth that they’re ambulance chasers or that people who launch ICBC claims are taking advantage of the system.

      “People contact us when they’re genuinely hurt,” Hallen said. “They contact us when they’ve already had an opportunity to speak with ICBC or other insurance companies. And it becomes apparent pretty quickly that they’re not being provided benefits or the compensation that they’re entitled to.”

      He added that the reality is that people, through no fault of their own, are injured on a daily basis in motor-vehicle accidents.

      "Those same victims are often taken advantage by insurance companies and insurance companies don't deal with them fairly," Hallen said. "So it's natural that we exist and it's natural that those victims who are not being dealt with fairly contact us and hire lawyers.

      "We're not out looking for them," he continued. "They find us because they need us."

      The no-fault insurance legislation that the B.C. NDP government created is "horrific", in Hallen's view, because people with so-called minor injuries are not even entitled to meaningful damages for pain and suffering.

      "All anyone is entitled to if they get into an accident today is rehab expenses and a portion of their wage loss," Hallen said. "I have hundreds of people who have contacted me since this legislation came into place—some of them very seriously injured—and we can't do anything to help them because they're no longer entitled to any [meaningful] pain and suffering damages."

      Cyclists are also at the mercy of ICBC in these instances, he added.

      Hallen is a former president of the Liberal Party of Canada in B.C., which invites a question whether he has plans of ever running for political office.

      He sidestepped this inquiry, pointing out that he is the honorary consul in Vancouver for the Republic of Croatia.

      "It’s hard for me to answer that question when I’m actually sort of a quasi-diplomat at this point," Hallen replied. "I just wanted to highlight the positive contributions that the [South Asian] community makes and make sure that we have enough conversations about that."