Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Make system carry the can for James

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VANCOUVER -- Anyone in the land who doesn't know who Graham James is? Now try this. Catherine Carlson. Who dat?

Carlson is the Manitoba judge who gave pedophile and former coach James two years in prison on concurrent sentences for hundreds of sexual assaults of two then-teenaged hockey players, Theo Fleury and Todd Holt. The Crown stayed charges involving a third, Greg Gilhooly.

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That paragraph contains three searing indictments of our justice system -- which has fallen into disrepute with ordinary and not-so-ordinary Canadians.

One, the sentence. Under the system's fun-with-inflationary-figures -- sentences reduced for time spent in jail awaiting trial and from one-third to two-thirds off in prison because, well, that's become the Canadian convention -- James, who earlier served about 18 months of 42-month sentences on similar charges, is likely to be back on the streets in November. Scandalous.

Two, concurrent sentences. Canadians smugly scoff at U.S. consecutive sentences, such as 176 years for conviction on multiple charges. Sounds right to me. In Canada, 10 convictions for, say, rape draw 10 concurrent sentences. One rape, one term. Ten rapes, same term. Is this bananas or what?

Third, staying -- not proceeding with -- charges when similar charges have been brought in similar cases. So B.C. monster Willie Pickton, über-serial killer who boasted of murdering 50 women, was tried and convicted of killing "only" six. The anger of the victims' families is understandable.

So, if there's such a thing as a citizen's arrest, I hereby arrest Judge Catherine Carlson for, oh, bringing the administration of justice into disrepute, something like that.

And I immediately leap to her defence. All the above are just business as usual in our courts. Carlson had no bleeding-heart illusions about James as a cunning master manipulator. In her decision she said: "Mr. James could essentially do what he wanted to do to (his victims), and could rely on their compliance and silence, because he controlled whether they would get the chance at what they really wanted or would have their dreams (to play major-league hockey) crushed."

No, one judge shouldn't carry the can for the entire Canadian court system. That system needs a profound shakeup -- and its lordly claim to independence doesn't wash any more with a public that feels betrayed by sentencing travesties.

The closed shop of the justice system's union-by-any-name permits stunning costs (discouraging civil action even when the case has merit), the fee-spinning adjournments so readily granted, the multi-year delays that can lead to dropping of serious charges because the accused's rights are compromised.

Justice is too important to be left to lawyers. But, that lightly said, who else can help reform the system? With impressive courage, Geoff Plant, a practising lawyer and highly regarded former B.C. attorney general, wrote a superb piece in the March 20 Vancouver Sun.

Plant's hook, as journalists would say, was a speech last year by David Johnston to the Canadian Bar Association. In a thoughtful review of the social contract, the Governor General stated the administration of the court system "cries out for improvement."

Last month, B.C. Finance Minister Kevin Falcon plainly, and Liberal MLA Kevin Krueger provocatively (disrespectfully referring to unnamed "bad apples" on the bench) criticized the court system.

Whereupon Thomas Finch, Robert Bauman and Thomas Crabtree, chief judges of B.C.'s Appeal, Supreme and Provincial courts respectively, issued a joint statement that a Sun editorial noted "has been described as haughty and arrogant" -- not that the Sun would sign on to language so very, you might say, injudicious.

Plant -- whose piece appeared two days before the Sun editorial -- was surprised the three would agree on anything, let alone a rare joint statement. His summation is quietly explosive: "There is not the slightest suggestion anywhere in their carefully worded statement that there is a problem with the justice system.

"They have chosen instead to read us a lecture on judicial independence."

This issue is more grave than any one court case, even the most heinous.

Trevor Lautens, a former Vancouver Sun editorial writer and columnist, lives in West Vancouver.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 31, 2012 A19

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