Self-represented drunks and man buns: a day in court

in FROM THE TOP OF THE PILE/OPINION by
BY BRIAN ZINCHUK

This morning, ironing my suit, I realized that I don’t do this very often anymore.

These days my suit gets pulled out for the occasional political event or, unfortunately, funerals. Hardly anyone even wears a suit to church anymore unless someone is walking down the aisle or being carried down it.

But today was different. Today was the first day in almost a decade that I would be covering a court case, so it would be a good idea to make a good impression.

I must have made some impression because someone else in a suit mistook me for a Crown prosecutor. With the black suits I’ve always worn, normally I get mistaken for a mortician.

The case was a significant one in the community, and I’ve been asked to help out the Estevan Mercury with its court coverage, in addition to my duties chasing oilmen and oilwomen with Pipeline News.

I used to spend up to three days a week covering court in North Battleford, so a couple weeks ago, I got the lay of the land.

When I was covering court in the Battlefords, there was a provincial courthouse in North Battleford with three courtrooms, and a Queen’s Bench (QB) courthouse in Battleford. The Battlefords had three full-time provincial court judges, one part-time supernumerary judge, and one resident QB judge. Estevan has one provincial court judge and one QB, and that’s it.

The prosecution’s office in the Battlefords had eight Crown prosecutors. The regional Crown prosecutor told me back then that if his lawyers had the same caseload as other prosecutors in the system, he’d have 16. There were also five legal aid lawyers. In Estevan, there had been two prosecutors, but they moved, so now prosecutions are being handled out of Regina. There’s one legal aid lawyer covering the whole region for criminal matters, and another does family matters. Just a wee bit of difference.

In the courtroom this morning, there was one obvious difference – a big screen TV mounted on the wall with a camera above it. A decade ago, if someone was in custody in the remand centre in Saskatoon, they, and a bunch of other prisoners would be taken by way of paddy wagon to court in North Battleford, sit in cells all morning, appear in court for three minutes and make the trip back. Now, the courts use video conferencing. Several prisoners, from two different locations, appeared by video link.

Similarly, the court clerk did something I never saw before. Numerous times she got up and called a lawyer, putting them on a speakerphone. The conference call included the judge, clerk, and prosecutor in the court, the defence lawyer on the phone, and the accused on the video conference. It appears courts have finally entered the 21st century.

It was apparent from the immediate answers that the lawyers were waiting by the phone, meaning they had to wait there until whenever the court gets around to making the call. (Better go pee beforehand.) But it also meant that lawyers could save the four hours drive time to and from Regina to Estevan for a 10 minute or less appearance. That’s time they could be doing whatever lawyers do, but I’m sure it’s all billable hours.

There was another thing I found quite remarkable – the very, very high number of people representing themselves in court, in most cases, for drunk driving offences. One man was complaining to another he had a job so he couldn’t get legal aid, but he couldn’t afford a lawyer. Let me put this into context – in one morning, I saw more cases of self-representation in a provincial court than I might have seen in a year covering provincial court several days a week in the much-busier North Battleford provincial court.

One case I was interested was stalled because the accused couldn’t get legal aid, and needed the court to appoint a lawyer because he was facing a raft of drug charges.

After the Supreme Court of Canada clamped down on the speedy trial issue, court delays are now top of mind. But I also heard numerous times how delays were waived for this reason or another.

While docket court continues to be the place where things get put off time and again (and today was no different), there was a common thread through the cases that were resolved. Nearly all were alcohol-fueled. Most were men with drinking and driving offences (I didn’t see one woman charged, with anything). And most of those cases involved someone who couldn’t afford a lawyer and were representing themselves. I may have to look into this.

One last new thing in court: man buns. I counted two. Let’s see how many show up next time.

Brian Zinchuk is editor of Pipeline News. He can be reached at brian.zinchuk@sasktel.net.

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