Retired Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta Justice Donna L. Shelley presided over a wide array of legal disputes, including some high-profile criminal cases, during her 15 years on the Bench.
And while she enjoyed watching members of the Bar act for their clients, upholding the law to the best of her ability, and helping litigants navigate their way through the intricacies of the courtroom setting, it is her judicial colleagues and the Court staff she worked with daily that she is missing the most.
“It is such a collegial environment, and the best moments were interactions with the people I worked with,” says Justice Shelley. “I just really liked the interactions and had lots of fun with my colleagues, the articling students and all the other staff.”
She distinguished the main difference between the Court’s work environment and the environment in private practice as being a shift from competition to cooperation.
“They want you to do your best. Everyone’s door is always open, and they would help you with whatever you needed help with,” says Justice Shelley. “It’s the best part of the job and I’ve made life-long friends.”
Justice Shelley was appointed to the Court of Queen’s Bench in Edmonton on December 15, 2006, and she retired on January 2, 2022, after having served for a little over 15 years.
Court of Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Mary Moreau notes Justice Shelley made significant contributions to the Court, taking on all manner of cases, and says her judgments are known for their crispness and clarity. Chief Justice Moreau also pointed out she was very skilled both in managing her courtroom and in her management role as Supervisor for QB in Grande Prairie.
The Chief also noted that Justice Shelley was the Court’s representative on the Judges Counseling Program for several years and was the Court's liaison with the University of Alberta Faculty of Law. During a 2022 study leave when she was Justice in Residence at the U of A Law Faculty, Justice Shelley wrote an extensive report on techniques judges can use to identify and manage difficult litigants which garnered high praise from members of the Canadian Judicial Council's Study Leave Committee, says Chief Justice Moreau.
“We will miss you Donna and wish you well on your retirement,” she says.
Justice Shelley earned her LLB from the U of A Faculty of Law in 1979 after graduating with a Bachelor of Arts, specializing in psychology, in 1976, also from the U of A.
She articled with the City of Edmonton Law Department and was called to the Alberta Bar in 1980. She was also admitted to the Nunavut and Northwest Territories Bars in 2001.
She was recruited by Cruikshank Phillips, which became Cruickshank Karvellas prior to its 2000 merger with Fraser Milner, and practised corporate commercial law and commercial real estate law there for 25 years, frequently being involved in high-end acquisitions as a self-described “big-deal junkie.”
She then practised at McLennan Ross LLP for five years before being named Chair of the Law Enforcement Review Board (LERB), during which time she also practised privately. Nearing the end of her two-year term, she left the Board as she had been appointed to the Court of Queen’s Bench.
During her career as a lawyer, she was appointed Queen’s Counsel in 2002 and was the recipient of the Province of Alberta Centennial Medal in 2005.
She was a long-time member of the Canadian Bar Association, a member of the Board of Directors, Canadian Association for the Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, from 2004 to 2006, she was an instructor in Bar Admission Courses for the Legal Education Society of Alberta, and she was a moot court volunteer at the U of A Law Faculty. She also was a speaker, panel chair and instructor at numerous conferences and seminars and authored several legal publications.
She was also a member of the Alberta Municipal Government Board from 1994 to 2006, a member of the Edmonton Citizens’ Appeal Panel from 1998 to 2004, and a member of the City of Edmonton Court of Revision from 1991 to 1994.
As well, she participated in the community as a long-time member of both the Edmonton Business & Professional Women’s Club and the Rotary Club of Edmonton. After her appointment, she continued as a Friend of Rotary and was the Rotary Club recipient of a Paul Harris Fellowship.
As a judge, she continued to be a moot court volunteer and speak at legal conferences. She also served on various QB committees and was the Court Representative in connection with legislative reviews conducted by Alberta Municipal Affairs in 2014 and 2017.
While on the Bench, Justice Shelley presided over many high-profile and challenging court cases, including the sexual assault jury trial of a Calgary psychiatrist who had been an expert witness in many trials, a family law case where she “wrestled for months” before changing the parenting regime, and a murder trial involving a so-called Mr. Big police sting operation.
However, the criminal case that sticks most in her mind is the trial of an Edmonton senior who was charged with second-degree murder after suffocating his bedridden wife in 2006. She convicted him of manslaughter in 2012.
“It was just such an unusual case and a heartbreaking case,” she says, adding that even the police officers involved in the investigation appeared sympathetic to the accused.
So, what is Justice Shelley going to do during her retirement?
She will be putting up her feet a little and is hoping to do some travel. She would love to rent an apartment for a month or so in various places and get immersed in the local culture.
“I also want to do some writing, on legal topics and some creative projects as well. I enjoy writing,” she said.
And, if that is not enough, she is planning to take some university classes, in subjects such as history, astronomy, philosophy and comparative religion, pick up some Board work and provide mentoring for young lawyers and law students.
“There are lots of inexperienced lawyers who seem to need some help and I would like to do that as a way of giving back,” she says.