The Difficulty of Ridding Your Case of a “Seized” Judge.

GeorgiaLeeLang100It is not unusual, especially in family law cases, to have a judge conclude a hearing with the phrase “I will seize myself of this case”. What that means is that the judge has decided that it is reasonable, necessary, or simply prudent for him or her to hear all future court applications regarding the case.

Often this is good news to the parties and their lawyers, but other times it is a fate that is not welcomed.

Madam Justice Martinson in AA v. SNA 2009 BCSC 387 explained the rationale behind a judge seizing herself of a case:

“[77] It is imperative in high conflict family cases generally, and certainly in cases involving allegations of alienation like this one, that one member of the Court take charge of the case. Having a single judge hear cases is required by s. 14 of the Supreme Court Act:

(1) All proceedings in the court and all business arising from those proceedings, if practicable and convenient, must be heard, determined and disposed of before a single judge.

(2) All proceedings subsequent to the hearing or trial including the final order, except as otherwise provided, and on a rehearing must, if practicable and convenient, be before the judge before whom the trial or hearing took place.

[78] The reasons for doing so for all cases are obvious. The judge will be familiar with the case so the litigants do not have to explain the situation over and over again. It avoids “judge shopping” to try to get a better result. It prevents inconsistent approaches. It saves legal and other costs. There will be times in dealing with some cases when it is not convenient or practical to do so.”

In cases like the latter, judges often seize themselves with the proviso that if the matter is urgent and they are not readily available, then another judge can hear the case.

But often one party, usually the party who consistently “loses”, alleges bias and seeks to rid the case of the seized judge. Recently, the British Columbia Court of Appeal in NRG v. GRG 2017 BCCA 407 weighed in on this topic saying:

“There is much wisdom in Madam Justice Martinson’s observation that a family unit may benefit from a judge seizing him or herself of a case. That does not mean, however, that the seized judge should remain seized to the last application filed. The very fact the judge is seized of the case increases the opportunity to develop an impermissible point of view about the case or the parties, and emphasizes the vital requirement of assiduous objectivity. All trial judges will know there may come a time in the conduct of a case when the judge says, “I have done my best and should pass this to fresh eyes.” In our respectful view, this may be such a time.”

The Appeal Court noted that while the appellant sought an order from the appellate panel reversing the Supreme Court judge’s “seizure” proclamation, the Court observed they lacked jurisdiction to overturn the seizure, not wishing to interfere with the lower court’s process, and also did not characterize it as an order of the court. They suggested that a litigant must appear before the seized judge or the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to obtain such a direction.

Frequently, a complaint against a judge who has seized himself is accompanied by an application requesting a judge to remove himself from a case based on a reasonable apprehension of bias, another application that must go before the judge in question and is most commonly dismissed.

I remember a case many years ago where I drew what I believed to be an “unfavourable” judge and convinced opposing counsel to adjourn the case so that settlement discussions could ensue. When we advised the court we were adjourning by consent, the clever judge declared that he would be seized of the case, despite hearing no evidence at all. It was clear he figured out that the adjournment was an escape from his courtroom…and he was right!

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Biased Judge Removed from Divorce Case

GEO_edited-1Sir Nicholas Mostyn was a formidable divorce lawyer before he was appointed a judge in London, England in 2010. Nicknamed “Mr. Payout”, he had an illustrious reputation for obtaining large sums of money for his female clients and was among the most sought after barristers for the monied upper class.

Of course, many male clients clamoured for his services and he represented Paul McCartney in his divorce battle with Heather Mills. She sought $125 million dollars but was only awarded $25 million.

He also acted for Lady Diana’s brother, the Earl of Spencer, who later sued Mr. Mostyn claiming that his second wife received $1 million more in a settlement than she deserved because Mostyn failed to advise him that his divorce proceeding would not remain private, as there had been a recent change in the law.

The Earl of Spencer was forced to settle to avoid the fall-out of a public trial. The lawsuit went nowhere.

This week Justice Mostyn was subject to a rare order from the Court of Appeal, removing him from a case he had been assigned.

It is not uncommon to hear clients complain about judges who they perceive are unsympathetic, even biased against them, but it is a rare occasion when an application to remove a judge is granted.

In British Columbia if counsel believes there is evidence to suggest that a judge may be biased against their client, they may bring an application to have the judge removed. However, the tricky part is that the application must be brought before the judge you accuse of bias.

About 99% of the time, the judge will gamely hear the application but dismiss it. These applications are infrequent, however, I remember a case fifteen years ago where I brought such an application. At the time, my legal research indicated that the chances of success were extremely slight and true to form, the application was dismissed.

As for Justice Mostyn, the complaint against him included
the allegation that he had made up his mind against litigant Mr. Mann, who had cancer, had fallen on hard times and lived in social housing. Mrs. Mann brought the matter to court in her attempt to have her ex-husband pay her $2 million she said was owed her as a result of their matrimonial matter, following their separation in 2007.

Justice Mostyn threatened to throw Mr. Mann in prison if he did not pay his ex-wife the funds owed. Mr. Mann’s lawyer also argued that the Justice was generally hostile towards his client throughout the proceedings.

The Court of Appeal judges acceded to the claim against Justice Mostyn. Lady Justice Macur referred to hearings before Judge Mostyn in February and June 2014, describing ‘intemperate judicial dialogues’ showing that Justice Mostyn had made up his mind about Mr Mann’s ability to pay.

She also said: ‘During that time Mostyn J’s frustration is palpable and clearly arises from his obvious belief that Mr. Mann is deliberately and maliciously avoiding his legal and moral responsibilities.’

A new judge has been assigned to the case.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Judge “Friends” Wife While Hearing Her Divorce Case

P1010870 - Version 2She’s a Facebook fan and also a Florida judge who thinks its OK to “friend” a litigant in the middle of her divorce trial. No, I’m not kidding!

Sandra Chace and her husband Robert Loisel had just finished their divorce hearing and were awaiting the Judge’s decision, when Sandra received a request from the Judge to become a Facebook friend.

Ms. Chace immediately contacted her lawyer who recommended she not accept the request, so she ignored it.

Shortly thereafter the Judge handed down her Reasons. To Ms. Chace’s dismay the decision was highly favourable to her husband. Notably, the Judge left her responsible for the majority of the family debt and granted her spouse extremely generous alimony.

After learning this Judge had previously contacted litigants through social media and had been compelled to recuse herself, Ms. Chace’s lawyer brought a motion before her alleging a reasonable apprehension of bias based on her internet overture to his client and his client’s rejection of it.

The protocol for applications alleging bias is to go back to the Judge who made the order and have him or her review the situation.

Several years ago I brought a similar application before a judge in the British Columbia Supreme Court on the basis that his remarks during the hearing could lead a reasonable person to believe he was biased against my client.

At the time I thoroughly researched the law on bias and was not surprised to see that in 99.9% of cases, the judge determined there was no bias. That’s the finding this Judge made as well.

Ms. Chace then appealed the decision to the Court of Appeal who disagreed with the Facebook friendly trial judge. The Appeal Court found that Ms. Chace was caught “between the proverbial rock and a hard place”. She was trapped in a difficult position: Should she respond to the Judge’s ex parte communication or ignore it and risk offending the judge?

The Appeal Judges quashed the order of the trial judge and remitted the matter back to the trial court. Ms. Chace can only hope she does better the second time around.

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

BC Court of Appeal Allows New Hearing for “Game-Playing” Litigant

BarristerThis week’s decision from the British Columbia Court of Appeal in Ghavim v. Jamali provides a stark picture of how a family law litigant can use the system to thwart a “just, speedy and inexpensive” resolution to a family law case.

The parties were married for 20 years, immigrating from Iran to British Columbia. The marriage broke down in 2009 and in September of 2010 Ms. Ghavim filed a divorce action seeking division of property and child and spousal support. There were several interlocutory applications and a five-day trial was set for November 2012.

Ms. Ghavim’s lawyer, in an effort to bring an end to the issues in the case, set down a hearing in August 2012, called a summary trial. A summary trial is an expedited hearing to resolve a case, short of a lengthy trial. Family law lawyers are encouraged to bring finality to family law cases to decrease costs and the emotional wear and tear of protracted litigation.

On the appointed date in August, Mr. Jamali showed up without a lawyer and sought an adjournment to obtain counsel. I have never seen a Court refuse an adjournment application brought by an in-person litigant and the case was adjourned for a month.

When the case began in September, Mr. Jamali, not surprisingly, still had no lawyer, but the case proceeded, as it should have. He did bring an interpreter with him.

On a summary trial the evidence before the court consists of affidavits, transcripts of other sworn testimony, and relevant documents. Each of the parties filed two affidavits.

The wife alleged her husband had a luxury apartment in Tehran valued at $1 million dollars that provided rental income of $7,000 per month. Her husband brought a lease agreement to court that showed a rental income of $50.00 a month. He also said the apartment had only $50,000 in equity with a fair market value of $200,000 to $300,000. Ms. Ghavim asserted that the rental agreement was a forgery, a recurring feature in cases like this one.

The parties sold their home in the Lower Mainland in 2009, each receiving a portion of the net sale proceeds of $259,000, however, Mr. Jamali’s previous lawyer had given an extra amount from his trust account to Mr. Jamali, although he had no authority to do so. That money, of course, was long gone and the judge voiced his criticism of the lawyer’s questionable actions.

During the hearing the judge asked questions of Mr. Jamali in order to elicit the testimony he would need to make a decision. Notably, the judge queried him with respect to the deposits in his bank account. He was utterly unable to explain the source of the funds.

The judge asked to see Mr. Jamali’s wallet, noting that for someone who had no income he was carrying a large amount of cash. Of course, Mr. Jamali had an answer for that: it was money to pay the interpreter. As an aside, I am puzzled that Canadian immigrants like Mr. Jamali who cannot speak English manage to obtain status in Canada, but that’s for another day.

The judge was openly skeptical of the husband’s evidence and at one point suggested that he stop “playing games”. The Court ultimately did not believe that Mr. Jamali had no income and imputed income to him, ordered him to pay retroactive child support and provided Ms. Ghavim with $32,000 in lump sum spousal support, which was the amount remaining from the proceeds of sale of the home.

Of course, Mr. Jamali retained the apartment in Tehran and its rental income, since only a court in Iran could divide that property.

Mr. Jamali appealed on the basis that the judge showed bias against him during the hearing. The Court of Appeal characterized the issue as to whether a reasonable observer of this trial would conclude that Mr. Jamali’s trial was unfair and ruled they would.

The Court of Appeal noted that Mr. Jamali probably didn’t understand the process of a summary trial, he probably didn’t know that he could argue that there be a full trial, he probably didn’t know that when he answered the questions of the judge that the judge would rely or scrutinize his replies to determine credibility, he probably didn’t know that he could ask to cross-examine his wife on her affidavits,and he probably didn’t know the judge would make a decision.

Yes, that’s the upshot of the case. The Court of Appeal saw Mr. Jamali as a victim of an unfair hearing and ordered that the parties start over, while confirming that the new process should also be a summary trial.

Perhaps its been too long since the Appeal Court presided over a family law hearing where there is nothing but excuses: I don’t have a lawyer; I don’t speak English; I didn’t have enough time; I didn’t know I could do this or that; please believe me, although I could have brought appraisals and documents to prove my case.

This is just one example of why the Canadian public is fed up with the system of family justice and yes, these cases happen time and time again.

How much do you want to bet that Mr. Jamali shows up again without a lawyer and the new judge makes a similar ruling?

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Bondage Judge’s Judicial Inquiry High-Jacked By Federal Court and Collapses

BarristerIf the Canadian Judicial Council Inquiry Committee reviewing Madam Justice Lori Douglas’ off-duty behavior is a microcosm of Canada’s justice system, why should anyone be surprised that after years of litigation manoeuvres by Ms. Douglas, the Committee has finally thrown up their hands and walked off the job.

Their frustration with the legal gamesmanship and the resulting delay and expense is a feeling that is shared by millions of Canadians daily, particularly those unfortunate enough to be caught in the morass of family court.

However, when the body that governs superior court judges in Canada cannot move forward and complete their mandate because of the interference of another court, one has well and truly gone down the rabbit hole.

Judge Douglas’ saga began in the Fall of 2010 when her husband, divorce lawyer Jack King’s former client, Alex Chapman, reneged on his 2003 agreement to keep his lips sealed in exchange for a payment of $25,000. His lurid secret was that Mr. King had shared explicit nude photos of his wife, Judge Douglas with him and allegedly attempted to entice him into a sexual relationship with the two of them.

Chapman’s complaint to the Canadian Judicial Council alleging sexual harassment started their investigation which eventually led to a rare public inquiry in May 2012 as to whether she was fit to retain her position as a judge of the superior court in Manitoba.

By the time the hearing got underway, additional allegations tangentially related to the harassment charges came into sharper focus. The investigation revealed that when she applied for her judicial position in 2005 she answered the question “Is there anything in your past that could reflect badly on the office of a judge?” in the negative and “changed” some of her diary entries that related to the Chapman allegations.

Several days into the inquiry, after the evidence of husband Jack King and Mr. Chapman had gone in, it became apparent to Judge Douglas’ lawyer that things were not going well for her and an application to terminate the inquiry based on the legal principle of “a reasonable apprehension of bias” was brought on her behalf. The sole basis for the allegation was that counsel for the Committee aggressively cross-examined two inquiry witnesses.

On July 27, 2012 the Committee rejected her application, whereupon she launched an appeal to the Federal Court and obtained an order from that Court that the Inquiry would be “stayed” or put “on hold” until the Federal Court could rule.

The absurdity of the process in the Federal Court is explained by the Committee in their written REASONS FOR RESIGNATION OF THE INQUIRY COMMITTEE CONCERNING THE HONOURABLE LORI DOUGLAS released on November 20, 2013.

They point out that the orders sought by Judge Douglas in the Federal Court and made by the Court were argued without challenge since the only Respondent in the action is the Attorney-General of Canada who brought their own application to be removed from the Federal Court proceedings. The Court refused to remove them from the proceedings but their lack of enthusiasm was evident when they did not appear in court for the stay hearing, thus turning it into an uncontested application, also known as a “slam-dunk”.

The learned justices of the Committee also lament that crucial issues such as the Federal Court’s jurisdiction to usurp the Inquiry’s authority were never addressed and recognize that it may be several more years before the Federal Court completes its review, including the inevitable appeals that will follow.

Finally, the Committee affirms their belief that the inquiry process under the Judges Act must not be high-jacked by “unlimited steps and interlocutory privileges…at public expense”…with the goal of defeating the “wider public purpose that must be served by the judicial conduct process.”

The Inquiry Committee’s resignation is regrettably a necessary, but embarrassing step in a circus that has played out far too long. When will Lori Douglas follow their lead and tender her resignation?

Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang

Judge Douglas’ Lawyer Cries Uncle

They say if you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen, an appropriate admonishment to Judge Douglas’ lawyer, Sheila Block, who is now desperate to call a stop to the judicial inquiry.

So what are Ms. Block’s options? Can she call in sick? No, she can only rely on an age-old legal ploy to extricate her client from the debacle that is called the Judge Douglas Judicial Inquiry.

There are times when proceedings in court or in a similar judicial hearing become untenable, and you believe your client is being prejudiced by the unfolding events. For example, in one case I argued the central theme of the case revolved around off-shore bank accounts. The presiding judge interrupted my argument to suggest that only people who have something to hide would use off-shore bank accounts.

The judge’s jaded view of such accounts led me to believe that she may decide the case based on her ignorance of the world of multi-national corporations and high stakes business dealings. I then made an argument that the judge should remove herself from the case on the basis of the legal maxim called “a reasonable apprehension of bias”. Interestingly, there are hundreds of case where an allegation of bias has been asserted against a sitting judge, most of them unsuccessful, as was mine. Face it, why would a judge admit they were biased?

This is the argument that is being made on behalf of Judge Douglas, however, the allegations of bias flow from the vigorous cross-examination of Judge Douglas’ better-half by Vancouver lawyer George McIntosh, who is counsel for the Inquiry panel.

Ms. Block complains that Mr. McIntosh’s questioning of Jack King is overly aggressive and shows “animus and bias”. From the media descriptions of Mr. McIntosh’s cross-examination it appears that Jack King is easy pickin’s as he tries to convince the panel that Judge Douglas had never seen the photos.

You can only imagine the snickering in the hearing room as Mr. McIntosh toyed with Mr. King, suggesting to him that it strained credulity that the good judge would pose for pictures, but never ask to see them and was unaware they were posted online.

Judge Douglas desperately needs a saviour and apparently believed her husband could play that role convincingly, but it isn’t working. The truth is Mr. King’s testimony is another nail in her coffin. And the panel has not even dealt with the “main event”, namely, why did Judge Douglas deliberately conceal the pornographic photos and the events relating to Alex Chapman, “Dark Cavern” and drinks at Earl’s?

I guess I’d want to get out of there too.