Ottawa Citizen
Thursday, February 21, 2002

Gender-bias issue raises 'optics' problem in domestic court

Dave Brown
The Ottawa Citizen

Domestic court in Ottawa was thrown into turmoil recently over the issue of gender discrimination: A man who accused his wife of assault admitted he lied, and on doing so was arrested for obstructing justice.

Fuming at Crown prosecutors over the incident, Judge Dianne Nicholas said the arrest created a problem of "optics." She said she sees women recant "every day" and they aren't arrested.

"It smacked to me of discrimination on the basis of gender. Women lie every day. Every day women in (domestic) court say 'I made it up. I'm lying. It didn't happen' -- and they're not charged with obstruct ... "

This one got sticky Feb. 5 when lawyer Gerry Castle-Trudel, representing a woman charged with domestic assault, objected to the Crown putting the man in the witness box. She pointed out the man was in cells, having been charged prior to entering the courtroom when he announced he had lied.

At the point of Ms. Castle-Trudel's objection, the Crown prosecutor was Ursula Hendel, filling in for Vikkie Bair, who was handling the file. The defence said the arrest amounted to an accusation the man was a liar, and in that case could not appear as a reliable witness against her client.

Judge Nicholas had some news for Ms. Hendel: "You can't suck and blow at the same time."

Ms. Hendel pressed for the case to continue with the charged man testifying, and as the afternoon wore on the judge became concerned about the man, who had no previous record, being locked up in courthouse cells.

She wanted him released and was willing to stay overtime to facilitate that. The case was remanded.

Two days later, with the charge against the man withdrawn and the charge against the woman dismissed, Ms. Bair, the original Crown, was back in the room. The storm wasn't over, as court transcripts show.

JUDGE: "Are you telling me as an officer of the court you didn't know this man was in the cells? You had to know."

MS. BAIR: "Are you asking me if I had anything to do with him being placed in the cells. Absolutely not. I had nothing to do with the timing of the charge. When I spoke to (the man) in the presence of Det. (Isobel) Anderson, he insisted he had committed a criminal offence ... I understand that the court has a concern it might have been a pressure tactic."

JUDGE: "I do."

Ms. Bair said the question of how and when the man was detained shouldn't be thrown at her: "Those are police matters."

JUDGE: "I don't accept that and I don't believe for a second that the Crown wouldn't have discussed with the police that this guy would be kept in the cells before he testified."

MS. BAIR: "Are you suggesting I'm lying to you?"

Eventually the judge smoothed things over by telling Ms. Bair: "I think you're a fantastic Crown."

Thump in the night

In an unrelated case, police showed they have no gender bias when they locked up a woman overnight and charged her with assault after her male partner alleged abuse occurred weeks earlier. He said he was struck while in bed.

A middle-aged and middle- class working woman who had never been in trouble before spent a night in cells with hookers and drunks and was outraged. She kept in contact with this desk as she went through the process. She never appeared in court. Lawyer William J. Carroll solved the problems. Her legal bill was $3,600.

She said she'd go public because she wanted to show the abuses of the domestic violence system.

But as usually happens after exposure to the power and attitudes that drive the system, she was too frightened and too embarrassed to go ahead with it.

Her ex also recanted, but wasn't charged. She said it happened because he was hurt by her decision to leave the relationship, and acted in anger. In domestic disputes the first to pick up the telephone and report abuse is the winner.

She admitted during our conversations that she did hit him. "He was snoring."

Bottom Line

We have added another assembly line to the factory that is the legal industry. Those who work in the industry are going through boom times. Just in Ottawa the domestic violence system is processing an average 120 a month, almost always men.

Few of us think of consequences when we're angry. We better start. Picking up the telephone in anger isn't a good idea.

Dave Brown is the Citizen's senior editor. Send e-mail to dbrown@thecitizen.southam.ca

Read previous columns by Dave Brown at www.ottawacitizen.com

© Copyright 2002 The Ottawa Citizen