Braid: Only bad publicity seems to shake Alberta’s justice system

Do judges read judgments by other judges?

Maybe not. Egregious conduct in the courts keeps coming out via the media, instead of through a healthy process of checks and balances in the justice system itself.

In the case of the woman we’re calling Angela Cardinal, a sexual-assault victim who was jailed and shackled for five days during a preliminary hearing for her attacker, a devastating Court of Queen’s bench judgment was published last Dec. 16.

It clearly reflected the disgust of Justice Eric Macklin at the treatment of this indigenous woman, who was a willing witness to the crimes committed against her.

What happened after that judgment was published?

Nothing. Not until nearly six months later, when CBC court and crime reporter Janice Johnston “stumbled onto it,” as she says.

Suddenly, officialdom jumped into action. The chief judge of the provincial court is investigating. The government has named an independent investigator.

They’re now investigating the heck out of this case, even though they’ve had all the information they needed for six months.

This is just the latest episode in an alarming pattern.

Nothing happened to Robin Camp, the former “knees together” judge, until U of C academics called him out and the media got onto it. He finally quit the bench in the face of being removed.

Nothing happened for two years in the case of Serenity, the four-year-old indigenous child who died after being systematically brutalized.

Postmedia columnist Paula Simons got interested when the child and youth advocate released a general report on the death.

The details Simons unearthed — the photos, the medical reports describing appalling injuries — eventually revealed not just the tragedy of the girl’s death, but multiple failures of the care and justice systems.

Would that have come out if Simons hadn’t written those columns? Not a chance. The system only shook itself awake when the bad publicity hit.


The latest case could easily have been missed entirely.

One day recently, Johnston was looking into an application involving the criminal, Lance David Blanchard.

A lawyer casually suggested she look at Macklin’s ruling.

The judge had convicted Blanchard of aggravated sexual assault, aggravated assault, kidnapping, forcible confinement and uttering death threats.

The details of the crimes are repulsive. They make Johnston’s other discovery even more astonishing — the fact that the victim was herself locked up for five days during the preliminary hearing, sometimes very close to the criminal.

Crown attorneys and judges never want to lose a key witness during a trial. A man like Blanchard might get off, and go back on the street to attack someone else.

But Macklin says the conclusion that the victim was a flight risk was just wrong — “a mistaken belief.”

Despite her frequent pleas for release, she was locked up in the remand centre at night, kept shackled in court all day and, on top of that, handcuffed when she was taken outside the courtroom.

At one point, she had to wait while the accused got emergency dental surgery.

Macklin wrote: “Not surprisingly, the complainant questioned why she must remain in custody and not testify until the afternoon while the accused went for a dental appointment.”

She was a brave soul, that woman we’re still not allowed to name. Macklin himself payed tribute to her character — posthumously. She was shot dead in an unrelated incident before her attacker went to trial.

People in the criminal justice system usually care deeply about decent treatment of everyone who appears in their daily parade of misery. That includes victims, especially, but also the accused.

Premier Rachel Notley made the point Tuesday that this must apply with special care to the poor and disadvantaged.

That is not always what happens, though. And when something goes badly wrong, the only remedy often seems to be publicity.

Even the judges know it.

Last week, Calgary youth court Judge Steve Lipton called reporters to his courtroom as a “last resort” to say he couldn’t find a secure mental-health bed for a deeply troubled 14-year-old accused young offender.

“I’m angry, very angry,” the judge said. “He deserves to be in a treatment facility and not in jail.”

Four days later, the child welfare department magically produced a bed.

This kind of thing makes for dramatic news stories that often do some good. But it’s no way at all to reform a justice system.

Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald


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