Judge Comments that Family Litigants are “Blowing Their Brains Out Fighting”

BarristerIn yet another British Columbia Supreme Court case, a wise judge points out the folly of the battle between litigating spouses and the accompanying expense, both financially and emotionally.

In Danroth v. Whiting 2017 BCSC 1814 Mr. Justice G.C. Weatherill considered an application to defer the sale of the parties’ family home. The wife had previously obtained an order for the sale of the home with the condition that the husband, who now lived in the home, had a one month reprieve before it would be listed for sale, in order to allow him time to raise the funds required to purchase his wife’s interest.

The 71-year-old husband wished to remain in the home he had lived in for years but had not been able to borrow sufficient funds to buy his wife’s interest. The home was valued at $3.5 million and had a mortgage of $1.2 million, leaving equity of $2.3 million. He needed to pay his wife $1.15 million, but he was only able to borrow $2.2 million, which was insufficient to pay out the mortgage and pay his wife. He was also waiting for an appeal hearing as he had previously appealed the order that the house be sold.

Meanwhile, it appeared the family squabble was to become more complicated as at least one of the parties’ children was contemplating filing a lien, called a caveat, against the title of the property prior to the property’s listing for sale, alleging that he/she had an interest in the property as well.

The judge noted that “this court sees a steady diet of these kinds of family disputes where it is all about money. The parties tend to lose track or lose sight of what really matters. However, that is for another day.”

Ultimately, the court refused to defer the sale, but before finalizing his judgment he spoke frankly to the parties’ counsel:

“……this is a tragic situation…the inevitable result will undoubtedly be that they will regret, if they don’t already, not having taken a step back and considering whether there is another, less tragic, way of resolving their dispute…this family is destined for complete ruin if they carry on as they are…this is all about money and the parties are spending it in droves….It seems to me that the parties could put their money to better use, for their retirement or for their future. The claimant is 71 years. How much more of this does he want to devote to this fight?”

Kudos to Justice Weatherill for taking the liberty that his status affords him, to try to de-escalate the family battle before it is too late. Judges hold tremendous sway over litigants that appear before them and it is heartening to see judges earnestly warn litigants of the fate that befalls them if they continue on the path they are on.

His parting words:”These comments can be taken for what they are worth. This court sees these situations far too often. I wish the parties the best of luck.”

A point of interest: Judge Weatherill is one of two judges sitting on the Supreme Court of British Columbia with the same name. The other justice is his twin brother, and yes, they are hard to tell apart.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

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Court of Appeal Orders New Trial for Father Because of Expert’s Fraud on the Court

DSC01152_2 (2)_2In a groundbreaking decision last summer after a 147 day trial, Mr. Justice Paul Walker of the British Columbia Supreme Court found that B.C.’s child protection authorities had negligently permitted a father to sexually abuse his children while the youngsters were in the custody of the Ministry. The Court found that the government’s failure to protect the children was “egregious, negligent, and a breach of duty” and government social workers showed a “reckless disregard to their obligation to protect children.”

The evidence before Mr. Justice Walker included expert evidence from Californian Dr. Claire Reeves who had been an expert witness at the 90 day family law trial that preceded the action against the Ministry by several years. Dr. Reeves’ expert opinion played a significant role in the original finding that this father had sexually abused his children.

The parties agreed that her expert evidence from the family law trial would be admitted in the trial alleging negligence against the Ministry. Throughout the lengthy proceedings the father adamantly denied abusing his children, an assertion supported by several expert witnesses, but to no avail, as the court found he had abused them and he was barred from seeing them.

The father, who acted for himself, missed the deadline to file an appeal, however, three years later the Court of Appeal permitted him to proceed with an appeal, based on new evidence that appeared to establish that Dr. Reeves’ evidence was fraudulent. The credentials she touted, including a Doctorate in Clinical Counselling, Masters of Science in Clinical Psychology, Bachelor of Science in Family Mediation, and a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism, were “purchased” from so-called “diploma mills”.

Her assertion that she had testified as an expert on child sexual abuse on numerous occasions in a variety of courts also appeared to be untruthful. The substance of her trial opinion was based on a theory of child abuse that had long been discredited, even by the expert who originally proffered the “child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome”.

This week, in a 411 paragraph decision, the Court of Appeal (JP v. British Columbia 2017 BCCA 308) held that Dr. Reeves’ fraud impacted the integrity of the entire judicial process, leading to a gross miscarriage of justice. The trial findings that the father was guilty of sexual abuse of his children were thrown out and a new trial ordered. The scathing denouncement of BC’s child protection authorities was also dismissed, the appeal court finding that the alleged misfeasance was the product of procedural unfairness.

What is startling about this case is that the Rules of Court and related case law clearly set out the requirements for the admission of expert evidence, rules and law that were flagrantly ignored by the litigants and the trial judge.

The waste of court time and the related costs in this case are staggering, as the trial occupied months of court time. In my view this case screamed out for the appointment of an “amicus curiae” or “friend of the court”, a lawyer who does not represent the parties, but assists the court with information that bears on the case. The admissibility of evidence issues, other procedural flaws, and the duration of the proceedings should have been red flags for the court.

For the parents of the children in this case, more trial dates are expected. What remains to be seen is whether the mother will file a second negligence lawsuit against the Ministry, which will ultimately depend on the findings in the new family law trial.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Judge Kreep Censured for Courtroom Levity

GeorgiaLeeLang100Judges hold a special place in the community and are expected to adhere to a set of rules and ethical standards that the average Joe or Jane can choose to ignore. But judges also have their own distinct personalities, biases, attitudes, and ideologies, which they labour to keep in check in order to ensure that justice is both done and seen to be done.

Some judges display severe personalities, no off-the-cuff quips and nary a smile adorns their face, while others have effusive, even bubbly personalities and seem to enjoy interacting with lawyers and the public.

A good example of the latter is Judge Gary Kreep of the San Diego Superior Court who, as a newly elected judge, was criticized for the levity he displayed as he presided over the cases that came before him.

He ended up in judicial disciplinary proceedings before the Commission on Judicial Performance over a number of issues related to his election to the bench, and for comments he made in court, most of which were relatively harmless, but could easily be misconstrued.

When a female litigant appeared before him he commented that he “loved her accent”. Ms. Hernandez was a United States citizen who spoke fluent English with a Mexican accent. He also quipped that he had “no intention of deporting her”.

When it was suggested to him that his comments belittled her, he acknowledged that his reference to deportation was inappropriate but explained that he was simple trying to “get a laugh and put people at ease”.

Judge Kreep also liked to use nicknames for the lawyers, clerks, and interns that regularly appeared in his courtroom. With respect to three legal interns from the Public Defenders Office, he called them “Bun head”, “Dimples” and “Shorty”. Shorty was 6 feet 7 inches tall and testified before the discipline board that Judge Kreep called him Shorty at least ten times while court was in progress.

He also had a penchant for commenting on the attractiveness of the women who appeared in his courtroom, saying, “She’s a pretty girl, you know you could smile”, or “the lovely attorney showed you the form, correct?”

A deputy city attorney, who was pregnant, was the recipient of his attention as well. On one occasion he said to defence counsel, “Let’s get on with this, we don’t want Ms. S. to have her baby in the courtroom.” During other appearances he said “It’s getting closer Ms. S.” and “She wants to go home and have her baby, I’ll pick on her today.”

In criminal court he interacted with a female accused charged with prostitution who entered a guilty plea. He asked her “Ma’am, anything I can do to get you out of the life?” Later he asked her, “Is it you like the money or just like the action?” The accused began responding only to be cut off by Judge Kreep who asked “Are you going to try to get a job at the bunny ranch in Nevada?” This comment was in regards to the accused’s statement that she might leave California. His final remark was “I don’t think it’s a good lifestyle choice, but it your lifestyle choice and it’s your decision.”

At the discipline hearing Judge Kreep testified that his comments were intended to show support for her predicament, and also to persuade her to change her conduct and lifestyle.

In response to the whole of the allegations against him arising from his courtroom decorum, Judge Kreep acknowledged that he ran the proceedings in a casual matter and admitted that his comments could be taken as offensive or demeaning, although that was never his intention. He denied that his levity rose to the level of sexual harassment.

The offenses arising from his election campaign included his failure to report campaign expenses, and the use of his personal credit card and bank account to pay campaign expenses.

The discipline panel found that he engaged in one act of wilful misconduct, 17 acts of prejudicial misconduct and 11 acts of improper action, leading to the most severe form of censure. A minority of the Commission panel would have liked to see his removal from the bench, however, it was noted that most of his offenses occurred during his first year as a judge and he had changed his behaviour since then.

As for his in-court comments, in my view they were neither offensive nor demeaning, although admittedly, calling intern lawyers by fanciful nicknames was a bit odd. It seems to me that Shorty and the others could and should have addressed their discomfort with their nicknames directly with Judge Kreep, who by all accounts appears to be a congenial, likeable fellow.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Should Canadian Judges Wearing “Trump” Attire be Disciplined?

BarristerIs discipline in order for an Ontario judge who went shopping wearing a “Make American Great Again” t-shirt? What about a judge sitting in court the day after the American election wearing a baseball cap with the same logo?

Local resident Lorne Warwick was also shopping when he saw Justice Toni Skarica, of Ontario’s Superior Court, with the allegedly offensive t-shirt, describing his attire as “shocking” and a “flagrant display” of support for a politician who openly discriminated against Mexicans and Muslims. Mr. Warwick complained to the Canadian Judicial Council, suggesting that Judge Skarica’s fashion choice represented a breach of impartiality rules for judges.

In a letter dismissing Mr. Warwick’s complaint the Canadian Judicial Council referred to his concerns that President Trump was a serial liar, racist, and demagogue and that Judge Skarica’s “embrace” of such a man rendered him unfit to be an impartial arbiter for Canadian citizens before his Court.

The Council was persuaded by Judge Skarica that the t-shirt was simply historical memorabilia that had been given to him by his brother who had been in Washington, DC. He had worn the shirt to show a friend and without thinking, wore it to the grocery store. He confirmed he had not participated in the Trump campaign, had not donated monies, and had never been engaged in activities with the Republican party. Most importantly, he vehemently denied he was a racist.

However, the story for Judge Bernd Zabel is markedly different. He’s the judge that wore a Trump baseball hat in court on November 9, 2016. He apologized for his admitted “lapse in judgment” characterizing it as an attempt at failed humour. He also said:

“This gesture was not intended in any way as a political statement or endorsement of any political views, and, in particular, the views and comments of Donald Trump. I very much regret that it has been taken as such,” he said.

However, a transcript from the court proceedings revealed his support of Donald Trump:

“Brief appearance with the hat. Pissed off the rest of the judges because they all voted for Hillary, so. I was the only Trump supporter up there but that’s okay,”

“Just in celebration of a historic night in the United States. Unprecedented”

Interviewed by the Toronto Star newspaper, Anthony Moustacalis, president of the Ontario Criminal Lawyers’ Association opined:

“Judges like Zabel are outliers in an otherwise elite court led by an innovative and hard-working chief justice. He should have matched their demanding work ethic, read their judgments, or sought their wise counsel,…
Instead, he has besmirched his position and embarrassed his colleagues and he should step down immediately, pending judicial council review, if he has any respect left for the court, and the public.”

A record number of 81 complaints to the Ontario Judicial Council followed, resulting in a directive that Judge Zabel no longer conducting court hearings. His conduct is the subject of a hearing before the Council scheduled for August 23, 2017.

Admittedly Judge Bernd Zabel has called into question his ability to impartially adjudicate matters that come before him, particularly where they involve visible minorities or members of the LGBTQ community. Judges hold a place of honour and prestige in Canadian communities and the slightest taint of bias is sufficient to attract pointed scrutiny and perhaps severe discipline.

Sitting since 1990, Judge Zabel is an experienced jurist who crossed the line, although it should be pointed out that support of Donald Trump does not necessarily mean that a Trump fan endorses every part of his philosophy. Nonetheless, it is one thing for a lay person to support Mr. Trump, but quite another for a judge from the bench to endorse a politician of any stripe.

It remains to be seen whether Judge Zabel’s behaviour results in his removal from the bench.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Ungrateful Children? You’re Not Alone.

GEO#1What everybody wishes for...a big lottery win, happened in 2011 to an English couple, Dave and Angela Dawes. They won $131.3 million dollars (US) in the Euromillions lottery, open to residents of the United Kingdom and the Isle of Man. Not surprisingly, David Dawes left his job as a factory worker, ready to enjoy the good life.

Ecstatic about their good fortune, they were equally generous with their family and friends, sharing $32 million dollars with them, as well as starting their own charity. Over a two-year period, two million dollars was gifted to Mr. Dawes' 32-year-old son Michael, who had served in Afghanistan, and his partner Jame Beedle, age 34.

Michael and his partner quickly blew through the money and wanted more. Dave Dawes expressed his concerns to his son, but the tipping point occurred when a dispute broke out at a birthday party for Michael's step-mother, his father's wife.

Mr. Dawes was not pleased when his son showed up at the party with no gift for his wife. Michael insisted the flowers he brought her was the best he could do for a "woman who had everything". As a result of their heated exchange, accompanied by too much alcohol, Michael and his father became estranged and Michael filed a lawsuit against his father.

He alleged that his father had promised he would "always be looked after". In reliance on that alleged promise, Michael Dawes said he had given up his position as a Lieutenant with the Royal Navy Fleet Auxiliary. He had previously worked as a lecturer at Southampton University and was an IT expert.

Michael asked the court to order that his parents be obliged to continue with their financial support so long as they were alive, explaining that the original funds he received helped him with his mortgage, afforded him the opportunity to purchase a BMW, and allowed him to provide funds to his friends and his partner's family.

At trial the evidence showed that over $1.3 million US had been spent by Michael in the first month, followed by an injection of $650,000 US into a house in Portsmouth, and the gifting of $300,000 US to friends. It was revealed that Michael and his partner were spending $40,000 US a month, described by the court as "some sort of Walter Mitty existence."

Mr. Dawes' counsel commented that his client's generosity "had not been repaid with gratitude... and his client's son has "developed a sense of entitlement."

Meanwhile, the ungrateful son suggested his father "showed arrogance and ungenerosity of spirit"...saying that his father's attitude changed from humbleness to grandeur.

A decision from Judge Nigel Gerald was handed down quickly, dismissing son Michael's lawsuit and saying that: “There was no basis on which any rational or normal human being could conclude that they could go back for more money whenever they wanted.” Judge Gerald remarked that Mr. Dawes could stop “bailing out his profligate son”.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Judge Presides Over His Own Divorce Case

GeorgiaLeeLang016

How would you feel if your jurist husband filed for divorce and coincidentally had his divorce petition assigned to his courtroom?  Hard to believe, but that is exactly what occurred with Texas Judge Miguel (Mike) Herrara.

 

In Judge Herrara’s discipline hearing he acknowledged that the same day he filed his divorce petition he learned it had been assigned to his courtroom. He didn’t think it was a problem because he and his wife, Melissa Carrasco were “trying to save the marriage and he did not want to do anything on the case”. (In my 28 years of practicing family law I have never seen a litigant file a divorce petition, while seriously “trying to save the marriage”).

He explained that he saw his role in the divorce as that of a husband, not an attorney or judge and justified his behaviour, saying:

“I did not care to place my family in the same position as other litigants find themselves, in conflicts and court hearings, which, for the most part only benefit the attorneys financially. It is really sad and embarrassing to see the reputation of some of the litigants being dragged in the mud in these court proceedings.”

Judge Herrara’s breach of ethics may have escaped scrutiny if he and his wife reconciled, but that didn’t happen. Instead, she retained lawyer Angelica Carreon who filed a counter-petition for divorce against Judge Herrara.

This did not please the judge who asked his wife why she was involving Ms. Carreon  who he alleged did not like  him. In his testimony he admitted that he refused to recognize the “legitimacy” of Ms. Carreon’s representation because she had improperly solicited his wife as her client, had campaigned against him during judicial elections, and was “dishonest, unethical and unreasonable”.

Several months after the judge’s original filing he terminated his divorce petition, leaving his wife’s counter-petition to be determined. At this stage, Ms.  Carrasco’s lawyer filed a motion requesting the judge to produce certain documents. Judge Herrara responded by filing a motion in his court for an order to extend the time beyond the normal time-frame for responding to the document request. He also filed a motion for a protective order.

Again, Judge Herrara did not recognize the absurdity of filing motions in his own court, saying that he did nothing wrong as he did not rule on the motions. But that wasn’t the end of his problems. His wife’s lawyer began filing motions requesting that he recuse himself from officiating over a number of other cases that were scheduled to be heard in his courtroom. Ms. Carreon alleged that Judge Herrara could not be fair and unbiased, because of the difficult professional relationship that had developed between them over her representation of Ms. Carrasco.

Many of the recusal motions were resolved by moving the cases to another judge, but several others remained in his courtroom and were not referred out. But, Herrara wasn’t done yet. He filed yet another motion to intervene in certain recusal cases because he wanted his views to be heard by the court. He testified that if he agreed to recuse himself he would be admitting the truth of Ms. Carreon’s allegations and would suffer at the polls in the next election.

The Texas Discipline Commission found that Judge Herrara failed to comply with the law, demonstrated a lack of professional competence, and engaged in wilful and persistent conduct that was inconsistent with his judicial duties.

They also determined that Judge Herrara showed no genuine remorse and continued to believe his conduct was justified.

His discipline? Six hours of instruction with a “mentor”. In 2016 he was re-elected for an additional four-year term.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Supreme Court of Canada Refuses to Hear Lawyers Who Argue “Gonzo Logic”

GeorgiaLeeLang025While President Trump’s opponent are having a large-scale melt-down over his recent appointments, perhaps the most consequential of these appointments is his nomination of Justice  Neil Grosuch to replace the late Justice Scalia on the United States Supreme Court.

But lest you think that Canada’s judicial appointments lack the intensity and angst of our American friends, you need only refer back to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s appointment of Federal Court of Appeal Justice Marc Nadon to the Supreme Court of Canada in 2013.

You may also recall that Ontario lawyer, Rocco Galati, challenged Mr. Harper’s appointment by filing a lawsuit against Mr. Harper, the Governor-General, Justice Nadon, the Attorney-General, and the Minister of Justice, which undoubtedly prompted the government’s prompt action to have the Supreme Court of Canada issue a ruling on Justice Nadon’s eligibility for our highest court, this after he had already been appointed.

The argument against his appointment was that Mr. Justice Nadon, as a  Federal Court judge, was not qualified to represent Quebec on the Supreme Court of Canada, despite his long tenure as a lawyer in Quebec.

The eventual outcome confirmed Mr. Galati’s position that Judge Nadon was not eligible, a surprise to the Harper government who had contrary opinions from two retired Supreme Court of Canada justices and several constitutional experts.

Most of this has been long forgotten by Canadians, but Mr. Galati’s 2016 application to the Federal Court of Appeal to be paid $800.00 per hour by Canadian taxpayers for his legal work in bringing this challenge has brought this case back to media scrutiny, particularly in light of the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision this week to refuse to hear the case.

Mr. Galati claimed the sum of $51,706.00 and his co-counsel, Paul Slansky, wished to be paid $16,769.oo, again at a rate of $800.00 per hour.

Both counsel admitted that this is not the hourly rate they normally charge, but this amount reflects their years at the bar and their expertise, a proposition that was soundly rejected by the Federal Court of Appeal in their Reasons.

The Court found that Mr. Galati’s and Mr. Slansky’s request for full indemnity for their legal services, called “special costs” was unwarranted for a variety of sensible reasons. For starters, their litigation did not decide the outcome of the Nadon issue, as shortly after they filed their action, the Supreme Court of Canada stepped in, thus ousting their private action. They were not successful litigants.

As well, “special costs”are only awarded when the opposing litigant’s behaviour has been egregious, even outrageous. Short of that, a costs tariff comes into play, a tariff that is far from reimbursement for all legal costs. Additionally, Mr. Galati and his colleague were representing themselves and were actually in-person litigants, not entitled to costs.

The Federal Court also remarked that experienced counsel would know that if costs were to be awarded, the tariff rules would govern. But the court’s ire was raised in response to Mr. Galati’s argument that the constitution supported his request for special costs and that to deny his claim was to be evidence that the Federal Court was “in bed” with the federal government.  To this audacious statement the court replied:

“It is therefore unnecessary for me to deal with the argument as to constitutional entitlement as it does not arise on these facts. That said, it sometimes occurs that a party makes an argument that is so scandalous that it deserves to be condemned, whether it arises on the facts of the case or not. This is such a case.”

The Court found that Mr. Galati’s  allegation of collusion between the court and the government was “reminiscent of the Gonzo logic of the Vietnam War era, where entire villages were destroyed to save them from the enemy…this argument deserves to be condemned without reservation.”

Regrettably, it is cases like this that lower the reputation of lawyers to right-thinking members of the Canadian public. But “gonzo” aptly describes arguments that are “weird, eccentric and crazy”.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang