A lawyer who grew up in Prince Albert has received a prestigious judicial appointment in Alberta.
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Originally from Prince Albert, lawyer Debbie Yungwirth has been appointed a justice of the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta.
Debra A. Yungwirth -- known to her friends as Debbie -- was appointed a justice of the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta on March 7, replacing Justice Thomas W. Wakeling after his appointment to the provincial appeals court.
The federal justice minister appoints candidates -- selected through a formal application process -- to the Court of Queen’s Bench, an equity court that hears a wide variety of cases.
“Justices of the Court of Queen’s Bench hear everything … family matters, criminal matters, surrogate matters,” Yungwirth said.
“Basically, everything that you can take to court, the Court of Queen’s Bench has to deal with.”
Since 1999, Yungwirth has worked as a partner at Yungwirth Tumbach in Edmonton, specializing in family law, criminal law and civil litigation.
When she received the phone call last month informing her of new appointment, she noted a feeling of excitement as well as a sense of fear at the daunting challenge ahead.
“You're taking on a pretty significant job that affects the lives of people … in a different way than when you’re in practice,” Yungwirth said.
“So there’s a lot of things … that you learned in your practice of law that apply, but it’s also a very new perspective and much broader in the sense that you need to become familiar with so many more areas of the law.”
“It’s an immense responsibility,” she added. “That is one of the things that you think about when you get appointed is it kind of hits you … the responsibility is huge, and so you have to kind of come to terms with that as you move on with the job.”
Though her judicial appointment may be the most significant, Yungwirth is no stranger to holding positions of responsibility.
A Girl Guide leader during her youth in Prince Albert (during which she received the Canada Cord award, the highest achievement in the organization), she later served as the first female president of the St. Mary High School student council as well as the 1977 Prince Albert Winter Festival queen.
Even after she moved to Saskatoon at the age of 18 to pursue her studies at the University of Saskatchewan, Yungwirth regularly returned to the city each year for summer jobs, which included working for Parks and Recreation at the swimming pool, at a forest nursery en route to Emma Lake and a job testing for purple gas.
“My friends were all there in P.A. and it was a great place to grow up,” she said. “All my memories of P.A. are positive, really.”
Even today, she makes regular trips back to visit family.
The responsibility is huge, and so you have to kind of come to terms with that as you move on with the job. Debbie Yungwirth
It wasn’t until 1982, when Yungwirth graduated from law school, that she moved to Edmonton and began writing articles before being called to the bar the following year.
Prior to becoming a partner at Yungwirth Tumbach, she practised with Biamonte Thurston from 1983 to 1988 and Barr Wensel Nesbitt Reeson from 1988 to 1999.
Her decision to enter the legal profession arose out of a desire to help people -- a sentiment she maintains today as a judge, even as the nature of that assistance has changed.
“For me, it started out as just wanting to help people in difficult times, and then as I’ve kind of matured as a lawyer and as a person, it’s become more about general service,” Yungwirth said.
“That’s why I’ve been involved in so many different peripheral committees and organizations that weren’t technically the practice of law, but that related to the practice of law and helping individuals, etc., -- and then of course becoming a judge, it’s about service, right? You’re serving your community by being a judge, as opposed to individual service when you’re a lawyer.”
Among the various professional organizations Yungwirth has participated in are the Law Society of Alberta’s Practice Review Committee and Legislative Review Committee, the Legal Education Society of Alberta’s Family Law Practice Manual Committee, the Canadian Bar Association Family Law Section, the Legal Aid Appeals Committee and the Edmonton Community Legal Centre.
She noted particularly active involvement in the latter, an organization that provides legal assistance to marginalized members of society who cannot afford to hire lawyers.
“I sat on the board of that, and just at the time I was appointed (to the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta) was in the process of helping to develop summary legal advice clinics -- free sessions with lawyers for people who can’t afford to hire lawyers,” Yungwirth said.
While noting that she will miss the special connection she had to her clients while working at a private practice, Yungwirth has thrown herself into preparing for her new role.
“There’s a lot of learning that you need to do very quickly, so that’s what I’m doing now,” she said with a chuckle.
Her official swearing-in ceremony will take place in the Edmonton Law Courts on Thursday, April 24 at 4 p.m.