I’ll be ‘proud’ when Canada achieves justice for all: Denise Balkissoon

A needed broader perspective on the justice system than provided by Ghomeshi defence lawyer Marie Henein:

I don’t expect defence lawyers to be nice, and so I didn’t have any beef with Marie Henein until this week. Then she said that our legal system is one “we should all be proud of,” and now I’m compelled to reply: Don’t be absurd.

It’s one thing to state, as Jian Ghomeshi’s ferociously successful lawyer also did in her CBC Television interview, that justice was “absolutely” served when her client was acquitted. That proclamation refers to a single case – specific circumstances of evidence and reasonable doubt, one set of police officers and Crown attorneys, one particular judge.

But to say, as she did, that the Canadian justice system is impartial “each and every single day,” well that’s simply wrong. Training and intellect might help Ms. Henein skillfully navigate the system, but that doesn’t mean the system itself is admirable.

After Mr. Ghomeshi’s acquittal on multiple charges of assault and sexual assault, an unhappy group marched north from the courthouse to the Toronto Police Service headquarters on College Street. There, it merged with Black Lives Matter Toronto, justice advocates who have been sleeping outside the police HQ for almost two weeks now. Native Child and Family Services of Toronto is right next door, and indigenous demonstrators were soon in the mix as well.

Emotions were extremely high and the number of criticisms levelled at the Canadian justice system was overwhelming. Many of them were also valid, and reflective of my own personal list.

For example: A quarter of federal prisoners are aboriginal, even though just 4 per cent of the population is indigenous. Black Torontonians (and non-white Canadians across the country) are much more likely to be “carded,” meaning stopped randomly by police and asked to submit personal information despite not being accused of a specific crime.

Justice is expensive and the more impoverished you are, the less likely you are to receive it. The Legal Aid cutoff for a single person in Ontario is $14,000 a year, or about half of working full-time for minimum wage; Ms. Henein’s fee is rumoured to be up to $1,000 an hour. Lawyers who work with low-wage clients talk about the scourge of “pleading out” – when innocent defendants make deals, acquiring criminal records because they lack the resources for endless, unpredictable court dates.

If Ms. Henein truly considers herself a feminist, as has been endlessly discussed, a recent Criminal Lawyers’ Association report must surely upset her: Female lawyers are dropping out in droves, in part because of sexist treatment by police, court staff and judges. There are many ways that the law disappoints Canadian women – please also do not forget the hundreds of native women and girls whose disappearances and murders have been virtually ignored for decades.

To say, as Ms. Henein did, that justice in Canada is “very, very good,” is to consider all of these problems acceptable. It’s an attempt to write off dissenters as a motley crew with aimless complaints, when in reality many legal critics have clear, concrete suggestions for change.

For example, Black Lives Matter Toronto wants transparency around police violence toward civilians; this includes tracking the race of those killed by police and an inquiry into the death of Andrew Loku, a mentally ill father of five shot in his hallway last year.

One wish of many indigenous lawyers is increased application of the Supreme Court’s 1999 Gladue decision: When sentencing indigenous offenders, the focus is meant to be on rehabilitation, not punishment, with true consideration of the impact of residential schools and other historical inequities.

And advocates for sexual assault survivors have a number of ideas worth considering, such as greater use of the civil system versus the criminal courts, and increasing complainants’ access to legal support and information.

The list of proposed solutions is as long as the list of problems, and that’s good. A growing, evolving justice system is something we should all want, and I think we do. A 2014 Angus Reid Survey found that only about 60 per cent of Canadians said they trusted the police, while a mere 40 per cent said they had confidence in the criminal courts.

Victorious defence lawyers might be proud of our justice system, but the rest of the country has doubts that are more than reasonable. I guess winning is a heady drug, and intoxicants do tend to interfere with one’s sense of reality.

Source: I’ll be ‘proud’ when Canada achieves justice for all – The Globe and Mail

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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