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Forms of Address for Parties and Pronouns Usage in Manitoba Courts

October 1, 2021 — 

The Court has always provided direction on how parties engage with the justice system.  Lawyers are told how to dress, where to stand, how to address their colleagues as well as Judges and courtroom staff. Law students engaged in experiential learning this year will find that the Courts are now asking people for the correct language to use when addressing parties in the courtroom.

The Court of Queen’s Bench and The Provincial Court of Manitoba issued Practice Directives regarding forms of address for parties and counsel which took effect on September 13, 2021.  The Practice Directives reflect the ongoing and evolving efforts of the Courts to treat all participants with equal dignity and respect.

For those unfamiliar with civil procedure at this stage, the various levels of Court occasionally issue Practice Directives to provide greater direction and clarity on certain issues relating to court practice and procedure. Lawyers and parties to an action are expected to comply with these directives. 

The Practice Directives regarding forms of address set out how parties may introduce themselves and advise the Court, fellow lawyers, and other parties of their preferred form of address and pronouns.  At the start of proceedings, counsel introducing themselves, their client or a witness to the Court by stating each person’s name, title (e.g. “Mr./Ms./Mx./Counsel Jones”) and the correct pronouns to be used for each individual.

An example of a counsel introduction would be: “I am Jane Doe and my last name is spelled D-O-E.  I use the pronouns she/her and can be addressed as Ms. Doe.  I represent the Defendant, Mx. Aaron Smith, last name spelled S-M-I-T-H who uses the pronouns they/them”.

When calling a witness to the stand, an example of that introduction would be: “I call to the stand the Defendant’s next witness, David Jones.  David Jones uses the title Mr. and he/him pronouns”.

In a webinar on September 16, 2021, Chief Justice Joyal of the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench and Chief Judge Margaret Wiebe of the Provincial Court of Manitoba, along with representatives from the Manitoba Bar Association, Law Society of Manitoba and practicing bar answered questions and provided additional information regarding the Practice Directives.  The over-riding message was that the simple act of sharing pronouns was an important step towards a more inclusive profession and a safer space for all participants in the legal process, be it lawyers, parties to an action, or witnesses to court proceedings. 

Chief Justice Joyal and Chief Judge Wiebe stressed that, as this is a new practice, the parties involved will make occasional mistakes and that counsel should not worry that simple mistakes would lead to a rebuke from a Judge or a complaint to the Law Society.  With time, this practice of setting out forms of address and preferred pronouns will become second nature.

The Law Society discussed how they are taking steps within their organization to let others know their pronoun preferences, such as updating website bios and adding preferred pronouns to their email signatures and Zoom display names.  They also suggested that parties be mindful when addressing groups of people and that phrases such as “Welcome everyone” or “Hello Colleagues” be encouraged rather than “Hello Ladies and Gentlemen” which would exclude non-binary members of the crowd.

Practicing member of the bar Eli Milner (Thompson Dorfman Sweatman LLP) said they hoped this practice direction would have a “trickle down” effect on the profession and make people more cognizant of not misgendering individuals.  Eli also suggested that people consider not writing “Dear Sir” in a letter if you do not know someone’s preferred pronoun and, when in doubt, instead write “Dear Counsel” or “Dear John Doe”.

For both up-and-coming members of the legal profession as well as current practicing members of the Bar, it is encouraging to see the Manitoba Courts taking steps to make the courtroom experience more welcoming and safer for all participants in an what can sometimes be an intimidating environment.

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