Globe and Mail

A judge in the clear

Tuesday, May 14, 2002 – Print Edition, Page A18
The Globe and Mail

The mistake made by Ontario's defence bar in its complaint against Judge Lesley Baldwin of the Ontario Court of Justice was one of timing. Fifty years ago, the defence lawyers would have had a point. But judges have long since ceased to be cloistered.

The complaint went to the heart of Judge Baldwin's ability to remain on the bench. Could she still be perceived as impartial and independent in domestic-abuse trials after aligning herself with a group of anti-abuse activists, asked the Criminal Lawyers Association of Ontario in a complaint to the Ontario Judicial Council.

Some background: In 1996, Randy Iles, who was free on $200 bail after assaulting, stalking and threatening his former girlfriend Arlene May, shot and killed her in Collingwood, Ont., and then killed himself. An inquest recommended ways to prevent similar murders. Then the Ontario government seconded Judge Baldwin, with the permission of the Ontario Court's Chief Judge, to chair a committee on domestic violence, which made its own recommendations.

Nearly a year after she returned to the bench, the four other members of that committee wrote a letter to the province's Attorney-General. In it, they expressed dismay that their work had come to naught. Few police services, children's mental-health centres, school boards and others knew about their work. They called for a reprinting of their report and a possible summit on abuse against women with the Attorney-General as a co-organizer. Judge Baldwin added a note endorsing the committee's letter, and commenting that in the previous year she had seen no change in the actions of Crown prosecutors.

Ms. Baldwin is a former prosecutor who specialized in these cases. Does that mean she can't be impartial? No. Did chairing a domestic-abuse committee make her partial? No. Then did lending her name to a follow-up letter arising from her duties on that committee change everything?

Hardly. Judges need not be monks, as the late Supreme Court justice (and former defence lawyer) John Sopinka said a decade ago. They may speak out on issues affecting the administration of justice, which went so badly awry in the case of Arlene May.

We would prefer that judges speak out openly, where practical, rather than privately to the government of the day; but in this case her comments flowed naturally from her work as committee chair. Let us hope the very fact of a complaint has no chilling effect on other judges, whose expertise on the administration of justice is needed, and appreciated.

Copyright © 2002 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc.