Monday, January 18, 2010

This Is Old City Hall, Day 1

As one of twenty students admitted to Osgoode's Intensive Program in Criminal Law in spring 2010, I'm spending my final term of law school at the placement of my choice: Old City Hall, one of Ontario's busiest provincial courts. I will spend four days a week there for the next ten weeks, shadowing judges, observing all manner of proceedings, assisting the judiciary where possible, and recording my experience.

Below are the events of my first day. In detail.

8:58 am. At the outset of any new undertaking, I always plan to arrive half an hour early, to get my bearings. Inevitably I fail and today is no exception. I left my house at 8:37 and reached the office of the court clerk 21 minutes later. She directs me to the judges' secretaries office.

9:02 am. A secretary informs me that Justice C------- will arrive at 9:45, so I should feel free to go get some coffee. I comply.

9:15 am. At Starbucks, across the road from Old City Hall, a boozy old man is addressing the baristas: "Did you hear about this Edward Greenspan? He got 'em all off! All of 'em! Edward Greenspan got 'em all off!" He repeats words to this effect all the way out the door. I wonder if he is paid to do this at a coffee shop frequented by court patrons or if he's just a genuine proponent of Team Edward.

10:00 am. Justice C------- collects me from the secretaries' pool and directs me to her office. Like the rest of the courthouse, it is well-appointed and lived-in. There are Renaissance paintings on the walls, but the place of honour above the couch belongs to a more modern piece: a bonfire, orange-on-black, painted by C------- J.'s middle child. During our conversation we discover that we're both graduates of the History and English faculties at Huron University College.

Somewhere in the building, a courtroom is being kept waiting while we become acquainted.

10:32 am. In a large courtroom with bad acoustics: C------- J. is presiding over a sentencing hearing for an individual who has pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography. Out the window you can see the weather beacon on top of the Canada Life Building. Either the temperature or the barometric pressure in the city is going up; who can read that thing.

An officer is giving evidence to the effect that there are six categories of naughty picture:
  1. child pornography;
  2. child nudity;
  3. child other [depicting children not in a state of undress];
  4. adult pornography;
  5. obscenity [the officer giving testimony cites bestiality as an example -- not to make these proceedings more distasteful or anything]; and
  6. other.
All six categories are represented on the accused's hard drive. The officer was thoughtful enough to bring examples of each, seized from the computer of the accused. Her Honour and counsel for the accused are viewing the pictures over the officer's shoulder while he describes their contents in monotone. He doesn't have an enviable job.

These days, possession of child porn carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 45 days' imprisonment. (Whatever one's feelings about mandatory minimums, this one would have been difficult to oppose, politically-speaking.) The Crown is looking for six months, followed by probation.

[This particular Crown prosecutor fits an archetype that I've noted in this courthouse and others: the Maverick. He may represent Her Majesty by day, but he's no government stooge -- he has a goatee and an earring, see? So he's more like a government stooge from 1994.]

The Crown offers a sort of "market" argument to the effect that possession of this kind of material begets its production. I can't help but wonder if this is accurate, given that the accused downloaded all the photos from LimeWire and no money changed hands -- but then, what incentive is there to disseminate this stuff? To paraphrase the Shadow, who knows what logic lurks in the minds of child pornographers?

A more cogent argument for strong denunciation: child pornography creates "cognitive distortion" about norms of sexual behaviour in those who view. The point may be applied to pornography in general: no less scholarly a source than Details Magazine says that the ubiquity of internet porn has turned the bedrooms of North America into dens of bukkake and other terms best left un-Googled.

11:45 am. Morning recess. C------- J. makes calls and consults the annotated Criminal Code. (Just because you've been on the bench for five years doesn't mean you have it memorized. It's comforting that she is so diligent.) Meanwhile I peruse her office reading material -- The Origins of Reasonable Doubt, an examination of the modern legal principle's conception as a theological maxim. It's more interesting than its name suggests.
Did you know: in bygone eras, in jurisdictions where firing squads were employed, one member of the firing squad would be issued a blank bullet. However, none of the squad members knew which of them had the blank. When a shooter pulled the trigger, therefore, he could never be certain whether he had fired a killing shot. In this way the shooters' consciences remained clean but the condemned man got shot just the same.
To understand how that relates to the modern common law concept of reasonable doubt, you'll have to purchase the book.

12:15 am. Defence submissions. Counsel takes care not to minimize the seriousness of the offence to which his client has pleaded. The accused has been under house arrest for perhaps a year already. He has an undiagnosed learning disability and he has been severely depressed. He accepts responsibility for his actions, a "curiosity that got wildly out of hand".

Counsel argues that a computer ban is unduly restrictive "in this day and age" and advocates that severe restrictions on use of the device be imposed instead. C------- J. seems receptive to this submission.

The accused is prohibited from attending parks, pools, community centres and other public places where children might be found, though he has no history of interference or assault.

1:00 pm. Her Honour asks the accused if he would like to make any statement. Having been weeping for the duration of proceedings, he bursts into sobs. He struggles to speak but he's incoherent. One word that emerges is "hospital". Counsel informs the court that his client looks forward to undergoing treatment and getting better.

2:45 pm. Back in the courtroom, awaiting Her Honour, who spent her lunch hour composing her decision. Crown, defence and accused are sitting together awkwardly. The lawyers are reviewing precedents, probably whatever was closest to hand.

I already know the judge's decision, which is strange and something I expect will never be repeated in my career.

2:49 pm. I wonder if the accused will be able to keep it together when his sentence is read. I know I couldn't, whichever way the wind blew.

2:51 pm. A court services officer just came in. He doesn't remove his hat in the courtroom, which distracts me. It takes me some time to figure out he's there to escort the accused out following his sentencing. Police have depressing jobs around here.

3:10 pm. Four months' jail, followed by probation, with stringent provisions regarding contact with children and computers, and entry onto the Sex Offender Registry. The accused is admirably composed. My first day at Old City Hall is over.

Observations, Day 1
  • I spent the day wrestling with how to address C------- J. when in the privacy of her own chambers. Occasionally I caught myself using the familiar "you/your" rather than "Your Honour/Your Honour's", but I rectified the missteps by the end of the day. Notably, Her Honour does not use her own honorific when she answers her phone; she uses her first name.
  • Her Honour is exactly twice my age and has been a judge for five years. If I haven't grown disenchanted and quit nineteen years from now, maybe I'll put my name in.
  • These posts are going to be pretty text-intensive. Pictures are not permitted during court hours.

1 comment:

Ryan Marr said...

"These posts are going to be pretty text-intensive. Pictures are not permitted during court hours."

Perhaps a moleskin and some drawing pencils is in order. Add some courtroom sketches. I can just imagine the sobbing man now. The eraser marks where you attempted to correct the shading on his hair. It still looks like a brownish area with points, but we get the idea.