Janani Shanmuganathan

Precedent Setter Awards 2020: Janani Shanmuganathan

Meet the defence lawyer whose impact on current caselaw has been seismic
Janani Shanmuganathan

Janani Shanmuganathan

Partner, Goddard Nasseri LLP
Called to the bar in 

At 28, Janani Shanmuganathan celebrated her first major courtroom victory. Her client, Hussein Nur, had been convicted of possessing an illegal firearm. And, although he was a 19-year-old with no criminal record, he faced a mandatory minimum three-year prison sentence. In 2015, Shanmuganathan asked the Supreme Court of Canada to strike down the mandatory minimum sentence for gun possession. Along with her co-counsel, Dirk Derstine, she helped advance the argument that the law prevented judges from considering the individual circumstances that make an offender less blameworthy. That argument won the day.

Janani Shanmuganathan“Janani has a natural calm about her,” says Derstine, a partner at Derstine Penman, where Shanmuganathan worked at the time. “She is very composed and has a natural ability to project confidence.” Over the past half-decade, she’s been on legal teams that have dismantled four other mandatory minimum penalties related to drug, gun and sex crimes. The overall impact of these rulings has been, in a word, seismic.

One year ago, Shanmuganathan joined forces with her husband, Owen Goddard, and his good friend Justin Nasseri at their criminal-defence practice, Goddard Nasseri LLP. Today, at 33, she’s a partner at the firm. Her time is spent, in equal parts, on trials, appeals and professional regulation. “I’ve been so happy since the move,” she says. “It’s not every day that you get to work with people you love.”

Behind her success, however, she has had to fight for her place in the courtroom. As a young petite, brown woman, she has been mistaken for a Tamil interpreter and a student. On social media and in the broader press, she has been vocal about these instances. That, in turn, has encouraged other lawyers to share similar experiences. “Once people start talking, you realize it’s not a one-off thing,” she says. “And it requires rectifying.”

Don’t forget to read about our other amazing winners.

This story is from our Summer 2020 Issue.

Photography by Steph Martyniuk; set design by James Reiger; hair and makeup by Michelle Calleja.