Family Law: The mature stay out of court

The mature stay out of court

Judge Harvey Brownstone of Ontario’s family court had an urgent message – family court harms families, litigation hurts children – but whom could he tell, other than those who came to his courtroom? But wait, he thought. Don’t people with urgent messages write books? So why not?

There is no good reason why not. The convention that judges should be seen and heard only in their courtrooms is archaic. They can speak, and they should, to demystify the law, or say something worth saying without compromising their neutrality or independence. Two provincial-court chief justices, Hugh Stansfield in British Columbia and Ray Wyant in Manitoba, make regular appearances on radio call-in shows. The Canadian Judicial Council, made up of chief judges, associate chiefs and some other senior judges, explicitly encourages judges to speak publicly. In New York, a federal appeals judge, Robert Katzmann, has started a movement to bring legal representation to the many immigrants who are locked up and trying to fight deportation without a lawyer. Judges have a legitimate role to play in speaking outside the courtroom to improve the administration of justice.

Judge Brownstone is eloquent on the subject of the harms parents do their children in their mindless courtroom battles. In one case, parents spent more money battling it out over what month their children would go to summer camp than they would have on sending them to university for a year. In another case, a parent told him the children would be better off dead than living with the other parent. The majority of litigants come to him without lawyers, having watched Judge Judy and concluded they can advocate for themselves.

Most seem to think that making a terrible allegation is enough, without supporting evidence; few are aware of such niceties as giving notice to the other side. Invariably, the children suffer.

Judge Brownstone’s book, Tug of War, is in part a cri de coeur aimed at families headed for the "battle of their lives." "Many people apparently need to hear the judge validate their perceived victimization." There’s a simple difference between couples who put their children through such needless suffering and those who never set foot in a courtroom: maturity. "Being mature means loving your children more than you dislike your ex-partner…. It means truly understanding and accepting that your children are entitled to love and be loved by both of their parents."

Credit is due to Judge Brownstone for recognizing a dead convention for what it was, and to senior judges (Chief Justice Heather Smith of the Superior Court of Justice and Chief Justice Annemarie Bonkalo of the Court of Justice) who wrote letters praising him when the book was published. His message – maturity, maturity – should be placed permanently on every fridge in every family kitchen in the country.

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