The Canadian courtroom is not a venue for the faint of heart. It is “ground zero” for our adversarial system of justice, pitting the state against a criminal accused; corporate titans battling competitors; spouses jousting to establish a fair division of the spoils of their marriage; and average citizens seeking redress for motor vehicle accidents, human rights complaints, estate disputes and so many other legal matters that are part of everyday life.
“See you in court” is a threat that is feared by most people, with the exception of trial lawyers, who have studied, practiced and for the most part, crave the adrenalin pumping through their veins, like gladiators entering the arena.
In hard-fought cases, clients expect their lawyers to champion their cause aggressively with a “take-no-prisoners” zeal. Many trial lawyers are proud to be called “a bulldog, a bruiser, a basher, a pit-bull” and other normally unflattering nicknames.
Within this milieu it is inevitable that advocates will lock horns with opposing counsel, and judges and lawyers will occasionally spar with one other. However, there is a fine line between passionate argument and unchecked invective when the heat in a courtroom accelerates.
In a decision last month from the Supreme Court of Canada, Dore v. Barreau du Quebec, lawyers and judges alike have been provided with guidance on courtroom etiquette that balances an advocate’s duty to aggressively defend a client, with their obligation to maintain professional decorum.
Quebec lawyer Gilles Dore was representing an accused in a criminal matter involving a Hells Angels prosecution before Quebec Superior Court Justice Jean-Guy Boilard. During Mr. Dore’s submissions, Judge Boilard chastised Mr. Dore, saying “an insolent lawyer is rarely of use to his client”, and later criticized Mr. Dore for his “bombastic rhetoric and hyperbole” and dismissed his “ridiculous” application.
After the hearing Mr. Dore delivered a scathing letter to Judge Boilard, calling him a “coward…pedantic…aggressive…petty… arrogant… unjust…that he was of dubious legal acumen” and made “shamefully ugly, vulgar and mean personal attacks on the unsuspecting”.
Mr. Dore also wrote the Chief Justice of the Quebec Court and the Canadian Judicial Council about Judge Boilard’s behavior.
Canada’s Judicial Council determined that Judge Boilard’s remarks were “insulting and unjustifiably derogatory…displaying a flagrant lack of respect for an officer of the court”. The Council also reviewed Judge Boilard’s track record and noted he had “a penchant for leveling personal, denigrating attacks against lawyers”.
Judge Boilard responded by removing himself as trial judge on the Hells Angel’s trial, while Mr. Dore was defending himself against a complaint made to the Barreau du Quebec, who ultimately found that his letter to Judge Boilard was “likely to offend and was rude and insulting”. Mr. Dore had his license to practice law suspended for 21 days. His suspension was upheld by the Quebec trial and appeal courts.
Canada’s highest court in a 7-0 decision, agreed with the lower courts, but held that judges are not fragile flowers unable to withstand withering critiques from lawyers who argue before them.
Madam Justice Rosalie Abella said “Lawyers should not be expected to behave like verbal eunuchs. They not only have a right to speak their minds freely, they arguably have a duty to do so. But they are constrained by their profession to do so with dignified restraint.”
Judge Abella also recognized the conundrum lawyers face when provoked by opposing counsel or members of the bench noting, “…it is precisely when a lawyer’s equilibrium is unduly tested that he or she is particularly called upon to behave with transcendent civility.”
This case is important, not only for addressing the difficult topic of conflict between counsel and the Court, but also in providing a framework for lawyers and other players in the justice system to understand the boundaries when speaking out about flaws in the system they work in.
While lawyers enjoy freedom of expression, their words must still be chosen wisely in order to balance their obligations to their clients, with the professionalism required of them by their governing bodies and the public.
Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang