Lawrence O’Neil

Cape Breton University is delighted to honour an exemplary and well-respected individual who has dedicated his career to the field of law and has worked tirelessly on initiatives and agreements that have changed the Nova Scotia and Canadian judicial system, Associate Chief Justice Lawrence O’Neil.

Associate Chief Justice O’Neil is a graduate of Saint Francis Xavier University, Dalhousie University Law School and completed a graduate year in energy law at the University of Alberta. He was admitted to the Nova Scotia bar in 1979, the Ontario Law Society in 1992 and designated a Queen’s Counsel in 2003. He was appointed to the General Division of the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia in 2007 and then assigned to sit in the Family Division of the Supreme Court. In 2011, he was appointed Associate Chief Justice of that Division. He continued in this role for the next 12 years. On October 22, 2023, he retired as Associate Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia.

Justice O’Neil’s public service includes time as a Member of the House of Commons representing the riding of Cape Breton Highlands Canso. In this capacity, he was a member of numerous committees and worked tirelessly on behalf of all Canadians. He chaired the House of Commons standing committees on Regional Economic Development and what is now known as the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Committee.

He has extensive experience at the senior government levels, having served in advisory roles to the Premier of Nova Scotia and the Prime Minister of Canada. He attended Federal-Provincial First Ministers’ conferences related to the 1982 amendments to the Canadian constitution, including those conferences that resulted in the adoption of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Meech Lake Accord and the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement.

At the time of his appointment to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia, he was working as a criminal defense lawyer with Nova Scotia Legal Aid, serving as a Small Claims Court adjudicator and teaching at Saint Francis Xavier University. As a lawyer, he conducted trials in Provincial Court each week; had several jury trials each year and regularly argued cases before the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal.

In his role as Associate Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia, he oriented the court away from an adversarial system of dispute resolution in favour of the consensual resolution and greatly enhanced access to Justice. In October 2023, he completed and co-authored a case management guide for best practices for Canadian judges presiding in family law matters. This guide is a valuable guide for Judges working with the public to achieve the resolution of disputes by agreement.

Significantly, he is a national leader in judicial outreach, having demonstrated the value and need for judges to learn more about the communities they serve. He convened meetings with Nova Scotia’s First Nations communities and African Nova Scotian communities at a time when such initiatives were unprecedented.


Today, Cape Breton University confers the degree Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, on a leader who is credited with demonstrating that judicial outreach is both necessary and a judicial responsibility, Associate Chief Justice O’Neil.