Ottawa Citizen
Saturday, September 07, 2002

Some parents should be asked about the stress on judges

Parents' experience in family court can be as tough as it is for jurists

Dave Brown
The Ottawa Citizen

The life of the average Canadian judge is "tragic," according to a psychologist's report unveiled last month at a national convention of judges in London, Ont.

As a court-watcher, I've come to understand that a psychologist's opinion agrees with the needs of the party that paid for it 100 per cent of the time. The opinion given in London was from American Isaiah Zimmerman, a faculty member of the American Judicial College.

In his opinion, Canadian judges are overworked, overstressed and need to pay more attention to their emotional balance. Judges urged their bosses, judicial councils, to be kind and discreet when handing out reprimands for shoddy work. Public embarrassment adds stress.

Things are tough enough trying to struggle by on $170,000 a year while dealing with unpleasant situations. (There's a law joke going the rounds about a judge who opted for early retirement, explaining he could no longer spend his days trapped in rooms with the scum of the earth. "And I'm not too fond of their clients either.")

Those judges in London were criminal court specialists. Expansion of specialty courts over the past 30 years has created a situation in which we have great numbers of family court judges. For the most part, those courts aren't covered by the media because the players can't be identified. The stress in those courtrooms is beyond the boiling point. We can expect those judges to add their pleas for more help (money?) and understanding. They'll probably pony up the money for another study. Who will pay the mind readers to study the stress levels in the people being processed through these courts?

It's all about semantics. A family court may convene on a child protection case, claiming nobody is on trial and its purpose is to make decisions in the best interests of the child. What that really means is that the parents are on trial. Their every word and judgment call will be second-guessed and the purpose of the prosecution is to prove they are not fit parents and the state should take over care of the child or children.

There's no doubt in many cases that's a good idea. But what if the system goes wrong? Where's the go-to person or process to fix it? Once the case goes to court the issue is in the hands of lawyers and they are trained in one thing. Winning. They are there to win for the side that pays them.

Best interests tend to disappear into who can afford to bring in experts (psychologists) with the most impressive credentials. Who has the toughest lawyer? Who has the most money?

Want to see stress? Watch parents in those courtrooms. Since 1991, an Ottawa couple has been fighting the system. They lost three children to Crown wardship and adoption.

In February 1999, Judge Robert Fournier agreed with them, that they had been victimized by a system that had wandered far off the logic trail. He said they were good people and could keep the children born after the state seized the older siblings.

He was the 47th judge they appeared before. They're still going and have lost count of judges.

Parents can't be named in child protection cases. In a recent step, the father was charged with criminal harassment because he refused to stop sending insulting faxes to judges.

Police raided his home in November and seized his electronic equipment and laid the charge. Thank you, he said. It would give him an opportunity to cross-examine his accusers (three judges) and, by the way, he wanted a jury trial. Last week, the charges were dropped and the equipment returned.

Judges are stressed? This couple convinced a judge three years ago they should not have lost their children. But they can't get them back. The legal experts say courts made "findings in law." The parents represent themselves and say they practise common law, which is in essence common sense, and it trumps written law.

In the early years of their fight they lost faith in lawyers and took charge themselves. They were deemed "obsessed." When they appeared to be close to winning, a judge ruled in 1998 they were "frivolous and vexatious." That should have stopped them cold, but a year later they got the Fournier ruling. "C'est la vie," he said, as he explained they were right, but would not get their children back.

They are now preparing lawsuits on behalf of their missing children.

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