Just two months into the new year and questions being asked by justice-watchers everywhere include: Is our judiciary out of touch with Canadians? On the flip side, does Joe Citizen just not get it?
Last month, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney spoke on behalf of those who resent our court's kid-glove handling of foreign criminals who take gross advantage of seemingly easy entry into our country. In doing so, Kenney took a swipe at those judges who "...on a whim, or perhaps in a fit of misguided magnanimity... overturn the careful decisions of multiple levels of diligent, highly trained public servants, tribunals, and even other judges."
That brought a strong rebuke from the Canadian Bar Association's Rod Snow, who howled that political criticism of judicial figures was an "affront to our democracy and freedoms" that "undermine(s) confidence in the judiciary."
Last week in Winnipeg, it was pretty clear that Justice Robert Dewar undermined the confidence of some with his thoughts and a decidedly genteel sentence for a sexual assault. An unscientific poll conducted by the Free Press showed that thousands of infuriated readers believed a judicial sanction was in order and several official complaints have been launched.
While all three political parties entered the dissing fray at the provincial or federal levels, the Canadian bar this time remained mute and apparently unconcerned about the political slagging of a judicial figure.
Elsewhere, a new B.C. case has left a bad taste about the sometimes-unfulfilled role of the judiciary in community safety.
Prince George is a B.C. town in crisis and dubbed one of the worst in the West for its crime problems. An influx of gangs and narcotics has migrated from Vancouver and taken firm hold of the public psyche in this smallish city of 77,000. Murders, beatings and kids buying crack cocaine are too routine. Reports of fingers being hacked off due to drug debts add to the anguish.
In January, Prince George's city council received its formal report from a recent gang crime summit.
Identifying children at risk, early intervention, addiction treatment, education and media co-operation were shown as key to an integrated approach for challenging the gang threat. In short, all the "right" things were on the table and everyone, from city hall to the police through to the schools and the Ministry of Children and Family Development was on board.
But what about the judiciary?
What about the case of Dwayne William Caron? The RCMP hit the motherlode when he was pulled over for speeding.
Caron had been zipping along at about 165 km/h en route from Vancouver to Prince George. There was a short chase before Caron pulled over. The officer checked the glovebox for the car's registration while Caron sat securely in the back of the police car. While doing so, the constable happened upon a digital camera that he scrolled through, looking for possible evidence of the speeds Caron had been travelling. (Bad guys do sometimes take pictures of their crimes.)
And this was no exception.
Except the photos were of a gun being fired by Caron. A search of the vehicle located a loaded nine-millimetre and a bunch of cash. Thirty bundles -- $2,000 each. An ion scan later detected cocaine and methamphetamine on the loot.
It was strong evidence of organized crime and strong supporting evidence of the kind of trouble Prince George faces daily as an illicit profit centre.
A court found Caron guilty on a variety of charges. That didn't last. On the heels of the city's gang summit and all of Prince George's best intentions, an Appeal Court overturned the conviction, saying that looking at the digital camera was, "...more than a minimal interference with Mr. Caron's right to privacy." Furthermore, "the price paid by society for an acquittal ... is outweighed by the importance of maintaining Charter standards."
But do such standards go beyond the standards Prince George needs in its fight to regain normalcy? Do ever-fluid Charter standards mesh with modern Canadian values?
All the cop did was look at a camera -- after a 160 km/h chase.
Adding insult to injury, Caron did not qualify for legal aid, so the lower court that convicted him gave the okey dokey to pay his defence team with the forfeited, cocaine-stained cash.
The judiciary's responsibility goes beyond protecting the rights of those individuals accused of crimes. It has a duty of balance and to fair community protection. That responsibility is great because it is the last word.
There are strong arguments to say that the judiciary works well and concerns about immigration, sexual assault and organized crime may be more anecdotal than truly indicative.
It's just that there are so damn many anecdotes.
Robert Marshall is a former
Winnipeg police detective.