I had the opportunity this week to witness Alberta’s legal system in motion. Note I said legal system. Justice seems to play a less than significant role. Dating back many centuries, our iconic Lady of Justice still adorns courtrooms, law offices and publications alike. Ancient Rome conjured and embraced the idea of a female Goddess of Justice and named her Justitia. I take an equal amount of pride and curiosity in the fact that they chose a female for this role. In her right hand she carries scales to depict the balance of evidence tipping the scales towards innocence or guilt. In her left hand she carries a sword to ensure a fair and sure fight for justice. Apparently she wasn’t depicted wearing a blindfold, representing objectivity and impartiality that justice is blind, until the fifteenth century. I wonder how many poor souls were deemed unworthy and thereby guilty based on social status, health or race before some sculpture surreptitiously added the blindfold. A subtle hint at best. I also wonder how a criminal case might play out today if the judge sat on his raised platform, blindfold securely in place, tossing weights on a scale based on arguments made by the defense or prosecution. “Ah! Good point my friend, two ounces for the blue team!” A quick swing of the sword to emphasize the point.
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While there have been some admirable attempts to simplify our Canadian Criminal Code over the years, it still remains the most complex, and by all reports, longest of all federal law, second only to our income tax act. I suspect our fine Prime Minister of the time Sir John Thompson, by all accounts a very learned man, would cry in horror upon learning that we have reduced this epic venture of intellect and double speak, to a country western song. As I listen to each case being presented, each side being discussed and agreed upon, I am left humming a tune known as “The Gambler.”
We first met our attorney/Gambler in Toland Law, Criminal Defense & Immigration Law Firm. He came highly recommended; years of service, partner in his firm, well known, yada, yada. We sat patiently waiting for a Kenny Rogers type gentleman to emerge. We were instead greeted by a member of Marianas Trench. Albeit still very much a gentleman, who by the way has a great handshake! When describing his attire to my teenage daughter she flippantly categorized him as a ‘hipster.’ Arching an eyebrow I refrained from questioning the remark and made a silent note to Google it later. I did. He is. In this case it wasn’t a pejorative; he wears it well. We discussed our case with him. He nodded in the appropriate places, furrowed his eyebrows occasionally and when I was about to question his genuine interest in our case, he was able to completely summarize and paraphrase our situation flawlessly. I was sold. Along with our first born in order to pay his fee.
Racing ahead at judicial light speed, it took almost two years before we were set to see the judge, whom I affectionately refer to as “The House”. Before we could get close to the table, The House had some other games in progress. Watching the other players was as insightful an anthropology lesson as one could hope for. The strength of their hand was mostly evidenced in their demeanor, shy of a few wild-cards who clearly had played this game a LOT. Each attorney was advising their client based on the strength of their hand. Some were discussing holding their cards, some folding, others were told to walk away. Running is not recommended lest they excite the Sheriff who stands with hands rested ominously against the arsenal gracing his or her waist. Some players are smart and listen to the advice of the Gamblers beside them. Others throw caution to the wind and bet it all, holding nothing but a pair while The House sits on a royal flush.
Watching the myriad of players storm in and out of the card game I’m struck by the lack of respect and humility shown. Whether they had a full house or a high card they seemed completely put out by the rules of the game. Some were swearing, some slamming doors. The Sheriff’s occasionally coming to call the game to order or escort players out. I quietly yet full of judgment remarked to my husband on the lack of decorum shown. This would come back to haunt me later.
One thing about court in Alberta that does not mirror a poker game is that the gamblers, who affectionately refer to each other as ‘my friend,’ can agree upon the outcome of the game. They can discuss and banter about an appropriate consequence for the lack of cards held by their players. Addressing The House, they present their agreement and hope for acquiescence. In this case The House appears more like a figurehead than an actual decision maker. I suppose at the end of the day if all parties are in agreement there isn’t much more to do. If a couple wants a divorce and they’ve agreed to all the terms it would be quite odd for the judge to say “Nope, I think you should stay married and walk your dogs together.”
Finally our turn came to play. I tried in vain to silence my shivering knees. With all the displays of aggression I have seen leave the courtroom, I am anticipating being met by an ogre with little interest in our agreed upon game plan, regardless of the hands we’ve been dealt. Our gambler directs us to our seat and we dutifully take up residence amongst the other players. The clanging of the buckle on my Prada purse (bought cheap at an outlet store) as it hits the seat seems deafening in the silence of the room. I look around and am met with stares from other players, no doubt trying to ascertain my crime. At least, that’s what I was doing.
The House is a quiet unassuming gentleman who, undoubtedly by his station, has been deemed competent and efficient at his chosen profession. Jurisprudence and statesmanship are the platforms on which he presides. Quietly taking in the scene around us, I feel less and less confident. Thankfully the skill of our ‘hipster’ attorney isn’t confined solely to his fashion sense. He is perfectly aware of our hand and is progressing accordingly. The House calls us to the table. He deals. We look at the cards. Our gamblers, with their perfected poker faces, give nothing away. Everything is going according to plan. More cards are dealt. Yup, this was how he said it would go. I still throw up a little in my mouth. Our gambler presents our cards. The House, while appreciative, seems unwavering. He calls the other gambler to show his hand. He does. Then, the anomaly. Our gamblers have agreed on an outcome.
We thank The House for the game and are excused from the table. The constant battle between freedom and privilege continues on its way. As we leave the courtroom we discuss briefly the course of events from there, exchange handshakes, (did I mention he’s got a great handshake?) and head to the pay out counter…. or court clerk to sign papers. The process that we waited half the day for took only minutes to conclude. Hoping to make an appointment where Dion’s mother is having Chemo, we hurry to the front desk. We are told to wait.
We wait. And wait some more. Then it happens. I get annoyed. Having been spared a harsh consequence my sense of pride, and thereby lack of decorum, is apparently renewed. I huff. I huff more loudly. I pace. That should show them. Nope. I sit and huff some more. I start to berate Dion as if he has somehow orchestrated this entire event. “What’s the issue? Why can’t we just sign the papers and leave? What to we have to wait for? Is our time so disposable that they just don’t care? Who do they think they are?” Of course these are all rhetorical questions, as I didn’t allow time for him to answer. Finally they call Dion’s name. He hands me the vehicle keys and suggests I go start the vehicle. I am less than impressed, but concede anyway.
Walking through the parking lot I experience a barrage of emotions. Somehow I am able to pull it all back to Kenny Rogers and The Gambler: You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away and know when to run. You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table. There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done.
On the very skilled advice of our gambler we folded. We didn’t win. We didn’t lose. We got to walk away. No need to run. No money to be counted. And the day was done.
Jennifer Barry is a writer for The Spectator Tribune.
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