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- by John Tamming

The old criminal “courthouse” was in fact just a floor, located above the Boot and Blade. It was a low-ceilinged warren comprised of dingy waiting room, dark hallway, cramped Crown Attorney’s office full of bored cops and two tiny jail cells in the back, occupied by those praying to make bail.

It was a bleak, beige and depressing place.

Years ago, when I wore a younger man’s clothes, I happened to enter its single courtroom (also brown and depressing) just after Judge Laing had wrapped up some guilty pleas. The room was empty, save for a clerk and a flaxen haired lawyer seeking to comfort an elderly woman. I gathered that her grandson had just been sentenced to a term of closed custody. The counsellor said some encouraging words, gave her a hug and said one last thing to the teenager before he left in handcuffs with the officer. I commended Doug Grace for his manner and he responded with some surprise, “Why wouldn’t we do that? A hug does not cost a thing and a kind word takes only a moment of our time.”

Some time ago, members of an Ottawa refugee tribunal were caught mocking those who appeared before them. They had written jokes to each other about the witnesses during a hearing and a witness had retrieved them from the trash can. It was heartless, vicious stuff. In a rather novel excuse, they blamed their actions on “compassion fatigue.”

I suppose that such enervation is the bane of many professionals’ existence. You are surrounded by misery and you are paid to adjudicate, defend, heal, prosecute, counsel or otherwise fix the hardship which is in your grill Monday to Friday.

Many cannot muster the requisite level of solicitude for those they serve. Or choose not to.

My worst lawyer’s moment took place in my boardroom, perhaps a decade or so. I was trying to get the necessary facts from a very emotional client. I ignored the tears and pressed on. After all, I had to mine the meeting for the necessary data. She melted down and fled the office, leaving some forms on the table. I retrieved them and quietly read them. They spoke of deep childhood trauma and profound mental health challenges. She came to me to sort out a mess and I had just trebled that mess. These are moments of deep shame.

I know of a surgeon who, over the period of a year, had rendered to tears at least three of my clients. I suppose he is still at it. Doubtless he would respond that the efficiencies of the job require such brusque approaches and that so long as the scalpel falls with precision, it should matter not.

As for my dear colleague Doug Grace, his retirement from the legal profession took effect last month (his office will still continue under the very able stewardship of his energetic partner). I suspect that he has precisely no memory of that particular guilty plea, that grandmother or that frightened young offender, or of that special encounter. I suspect that such graceful moments would have blended in with a score of like gestures over the course of the years.

I attended first appearance criminal court last week. The cavernous courtroom 201 was empty save for the court staff and a judge. On the wall was a massive screen onto which dozens of lawyers and accused from across the province were zooming in and out of digital “booths” all day long. They were setting dates, offering up pleas and accepting their sentences.

It is all very efficient, I suppose.

But we will miss the Doug Graces at the back of the courtroom, offering up a blonde joke to a nervous new lawyer, extending a hug to a relative and whispering “it will be OK” to the boy in the dock.

Our town and our profession are the worse for it.

Have a great retirement, Doug. May you have fresh powder on every run.



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