While most of Vancouver sleeps, various players in the criminal justice system are up and working at 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning. Fuelled by coffee, and sometimes adrenaline, police officers, Crown counsel, and duty counsel lawyers rub the sleep away from their eyes and are busily preparing for the day ahead. The task at hand is to sort through the Saturday night jail slate and to decide the fates of the 30 or so individuals who have found themselves locked up in the Vancouver Jail—a rather dreary network of passageways and jail cells composed of concrete and metal. All of those in custody have one thing in common: the desire to be released, and released as quickly as possible.
In Vancouver, as well as other B.C. courthouses, duty counsel lawyers are funded by the Legal Services Society of British Columbia. Unlike public defenders in other jurisdictions, B.C. duty counsel lawyers are members of the private bar. They have chosen to make themselves available (usually for two or three successive days every couple of months) to help steer newly arrested people through their bail hearings: the process which will determine whether or not they will be released from jail prior to their trial. For the past 20 years or so, I have had the pleasure and pain of representing my fellow citizens, all in an effort to uphold the ideal of “innocent until proven guilty”. The prisoners typically range from “deers in the headlights”, to drug and alcohol-addled lost souls, to truly corrupt criminals and everything in between. My goal is to return them to their freedom, albeit usually with restrictive conditions. Sometimes their freedom is only temporary.
What follows is a brief account of a typical Sunday morning in the life of a Vancouver duty counsel lawyer.
The first thing I notice after I hear the click of the metal door closing behind me is the stench of the unwashed and those desperately fighting through withdrawal. I am in a six-by-10-foot cubicle with only a bare desk separating me from the prisoners that police jail officers bring in one by one. The jail slate tells me there are only 25 prisoners this morning, not including the five who were released without charges for public intoxication. A quick glance tells me that they are charged with various misdeeds such as uttering threats, possession of break-in instruments, assault, theft, and various drug offences. One person is charged with sexual assault; another is charged with production of child pornography. Two particular charges come up over and over: breach of probation and breach of an undertaking. On this day, a full 15 of the 25 prisoners have either missed their court date, failed to report to Community Corrections, or have failed to abide by a “no contact” or “no go” condition of a prior release. Those in breach are, generally speaking, severe drug addicts or the mentally disordered. They are the poor and unfortunate souls that inhabit the Cordova Street shelters or are of no fixed address. The cynics—and it is hard not to be a cynic myself some mornings—would refer to these folks as “grist for the mill of the criminal justice system”.
Over in the Crown counsel office on the first floor of the 222 Main Street provincial courthouse, the weekend Crown and her two assistants busily read fresh-printed police reports and gather supporting documents to determine whether, in Crown’s view, a prisoner ought to be released on conditions or whether Crown will seek their detention. Later that afternoon, a series of bail hearings will occur by video. A Judicial justice of the peace, located at the Justice Centre in Burnaby, is linked via video to the Vancouver Jail where the prisoners appear. Duty counsel and Crown counsel are likewise linked in from their location, in Courtroom 100 at 222 Main Street.
The exercise is largely one of triage. Only eight of the 25 accuseds will have bail hearings this day. Of the remaining 17, Crown has determined that 11 can be released on conditions. Six have decided to wait until they can arrange for their own lawyer to be in court with them on Monday. Three of these are too drug sick to proceed. Three others face serious charges: trafficking, sex assault, and child pornography allegations.
I spend from five to 15 minutes interviewing each of the prisoners. Each has their story to tell. Some are more articulate than others. Mr. R. has warrants out of Abbotsford for assault and breach. He has a new charge of flight from police. He will be returning to Abbotsford Provincial Court in custody for a Monday bail hearing.
Mr. S., who has conditions not to possess tools outside of his residence, was arrested for attempting to break in to a dumpster with a stick. He is homeless. The Crown reluctantly accepts my submission that a stick is not really a “tool” and agrees to release him to live with a relative.
Mr. M.S. is not so fortunate. He is a heroin addict with a long record for theft. Because he is junk sick, he wants out of jail now, despite being of no fixed address and facing two new shoplifting charges. He does himself no favours when he falls asleep during his video bail hearing. When the judicial justice orders his detention, he sobs uncontrollably and is led out of the video room.
Ms. N. is a fish out of water. She has no criminal history whatsoever. She is a pretty, young woman with fresh bruises on her face. She tells me she was assaulted by her abusive husband who somehow persuaded police that she was mentally disordered. On the strength of the husband’s complaint, Crown counsel asks the judicial justice for an overnight psychiatric assessment. The woman, frankly, seems perfectly sane and lucid. She promises to stay away from her Vancouver condo and will live with a girlfriend in a neighbouring community until her case concludes. The JJP orders her release. She, too, sobs quietly.
For those keeping score, of the 25 charged prisoners, 16 have been released, either with the Crown’s consent or by the JJP; six prisoners have consented to remain in custody so as to be represented by their own lawyer on a future date. Three prisoners have been detained and will remain in custody until their trial dates.
At the end of the day, the lawyers who have the luxury to go home at their discretion try to put this part of the day behind them and enjoy what is left of the weekend. The accuseds try to make sense of what has happened to them as a result of their bad choices or bad luck. The criminal justice system goes on. Unfortunately it is a blunt instrument that may or may not help redefine the lives of those it is applied to.