Thursday, February 18, 2010

This Is Old City Hall, Day 13

Day Twelve was a wash: His Honour was called away and I was left in a conference room to finish preparations for my seminar the following day. The seminar was abominable and in retrospect, my time would have been put to better use by running at top speed in the opposite direction from Osgoode Hall, but -- hindsight, what can you do!

The following Monday I attended mental health court with Justice S--------. My notes from that day begin as follows: "It smells like cheese in here." And from that promising beginning, the day only improved.

I don't wish to make light of mental illness. I believe that the mental health court performs an invaluable service and that its officers deserve notice and commendation. But as they will be first to tell you, a lot of funny stuff happens in there.

Consider Ms. X. His Honour informed me that Ms. X was a fixture of the court, and that her court appearances had taken on a critical significance in her life. (Apparently this is not uncommon.) She was doing legal research on her own behalf, and it showed, much to the chagrin of her lawyer. Mrs. X proved the adage that a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Also a hilarious thing.

When her name was called, Ms. X was in the body of the court. She drawled "ho-o-o-ld on a moment" as she hauled herself up; "you can hold the matter down for a moment while I get something out of my knapsack." Just like that -- languorous, like a veteran clerk that everybody's scared of.

Her lawyer wanted to put the matter over a week or so. Ms. X gave her about four seconds to speak -- "I think if we could come back on the 22nd" -- and then she went off. I recorded her as accurately as I could manage:

"ONCE AGAIN, you don’t have my interest in mind. I’m entitled to an election, OKAY? So I’m not obligated to have a preliminary inquiry, OKAY?1 Once again I’m the only one here with any brains. [Addressing her lawyer] You don’t know how to use your brains because your father lives in a city. [Addressing duty counsel, His Honour and the court staff] Your father lives in a city, and your father lives in a city, and your father lives in a city. And on the day you retire your father will be in a city. None of you could do what I do in custody. I was at Vanier and Algonquin.2 None of you can do what I do because you don’t know how to use your brains."

Everyone remained silent until this tirade ran out of gas, and then her lawyer resumed. "If we could come back on the 22nd, please." The court was agreeable.

I wasn't completely unprepared for the mental health courtroom. It was depicted on the short-lived CBC series This Is Wonderland, which I have mentioned before. (TIW took place at Old City Hall and didn't spare the details of life in the bowels of the Toronto justice system. A week into my placement, I hunted down the DVDs of the first season.) One early episode featured a mentally-ill homeless man who was campaigning for a municipal government seat. The day after I watched that episode, I saw the real deal. When I arrived at the front doors of the courthouse in the morning, a crowd outside was listening to a homeless man whom I had seen often. He was announcing his candidacy in the upcoming Toronto mayoral election. Not only that -- he was maligning his opponents George Smitherman, Rocco Rossi and Adam Giambrone (obviously this was way back in early February). I see him often, as his campaign headquarters is on the sidewalk at the corner of Bay and Queen. I call him Mister Mayor and I wish him the wildest success.

But back to the real mental health court: midway through my morning in the cheese-smelling courtroom, a group of high school boys entered the courtroom. They were about five minutes too late to get wind of some sordid charges involving a man who stood in the window of his house, naked, waving his genitalia at children passing by on their way to school. I thought it was fortunate that they didn't hear this, not because it would have affronted their delicate sensibilities, but because they would have found it hysterical.

Inexplicably, the young men were accompanied by Mister Mayor. He sat with them for five minutes, then stood up and broke wind. It was audible from my seat on the opposite side of courtroom. He took the opportunity to address His Honour. "How ya doin, Judge S--------?" His Honour greeted him in kind, by name. Evidently Mister Mayor too is a fixture of this court. "God bless you," the mayor continues. "Take care of these young kids; they're just learning. God bless." He took his leave. Outside the courtroom he could be heard to announce, "I just farted in the courtroom!" The high school boys lost it. They will never forget this field trip.

During the morning recess I made friends with a fellow observer from the body of the court. She had a matter coming up -- that is to say, she was one of the accused. I showed her how to get to Coffee Court, the snack bar on the other side of the courthouse. En route she told me that she had had a bench warrant issued against her because had been confused and had attended at the wrong facility on the right day.

My new friend told me that the government wants to take away judges' decision-making powers, so that all they can do is sit on the bench and go to sleep. This is (more or less) my understanding of the government's intentions too. She went on to opine that this was unfair to those who couldn't afford to retain experienced counsel. Other people, not her, of course -- she was rich. She laughed when she told me this. I chose to believe it despite the context.


  • After observing several matters in mental health court, I felt comfortable noting a pattern that, with some minor modifications, could be applied to every matter that appeared there:

mental illness → family estrangement → poverty → alcohol → crime → arrest → cat death → guilty plea for diversion and treatment

  • From my notes: one accused party was "way too good-looking to be [mentally ill]". Nothing else is stated.
1 I don’t know how she stumbled upon the concept of accused election, but she was right: she’s not obligated to have a preliminary inquiry. Unfortunately, the fruits of her research must have omitted the distinction between summary and indictable offences—she wasn’t getting an election. Moreover, she wasn’t going to trial, so the matter was pretty moot.
2 It’s a short trip from academia to the nut hatch. | EDIT, February 19: It didn't occur to me when the accused mentioned Vanier that she probably meant the women's prison rather than the post-secondary institution. I'm pretty sure she really did go to Algonquin College though.

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