On Friday October 21, Raconteurs Storytelling hosted their talk, “Architects of Justice: Stories from the Justice System” at Hart House. Speakers shared their personal and professional stories about the legal system. The talk focused on access to justice and its flaws, and the changes being done to improve the system.
Raconteurs Storytelling is a monthly event series that features people telling their true, personal stories. These stories emphasize the importance of the human experience. The powerful connection between the speaker and audience is poignant, as sharing stories helps create a sense of community between the group.
There were five storytellers at Friday’s event: Scott Cowan, Aurina Chatterjee, Paul Copeland, Mandi Gray, and Jagmeet Singh. Some stories were funny, and others were sobering. But all touched upon how the legal system had either failed them or their clients in the past. They also discussed a need to change a system that is often corrupt.
Each storyteller brought something informative to the stage.
Cowan, a criminal defense lawyer from Goderich, Ontario, talked about his experience representing a client in Nunavut. Nunavut is a young territory with a population of only 32,000, making legal help hard to find. Cowan represented a young man named Henry (name changed at the discretion of the client), who shot five people that attempted to break into his house after a fight had broken out between them. Henry killed three people. Before the deaths, Henry called 911, and the operator assured him a police officer would be there immediately. The police arrived 10 minutes after the shooting.
Henry was held in custody for two years because there was no one to represent him in court. Therefore, he could not have a trial. Details about the crime were also unclear, as forensic pathology in Nunavut is scarce. The court depicted the deceased as mere drunks, while in reality, they all had criminal records. The original observations said the deceased were unarmed, but it was later discovered that one of the men had a golf club with him.
Cowan’s story emphasized that isolated communities in Nunavut have poor access to justice, and often leave cases unresolved because of the lack of authority involved. Nunavut therefore needs to develop an improved source of legal representation and an improvement in bail terms and forensics.
Singh, a deputy lawyer and a politician for the Ontario New Democratic Party, spoke about bail terms and the rights for freedom. His story was about a young man he represented who was involved in a sexual assault case with a group of other people. Since the young man was a minor and was on strict bail terms, Singh made it his mission to talk to him so he could build the best defense possible. The young man ended up having an acquittal on the case. Singh talked about how providing the best defense for criminal trials is important, because as a democracy, it is our duty to fight for freedom.
Singh explained that a large percentage of people in jail are innocent, and people should not be held prisoner for crimes they didn’t commit simply because they don’t have enough money for bail. The law should not incarcerate the poor, but should build a rehabilitative system that provides justice for the innocent.
The speaker I found most riveting was Gray. Unlike the others, Gray is not a lawyer. Rather, she is a Ph.D. student at York University who is a victim of the legal system. Gray was sexually assaulted by an executive member of her union. Her trial lasted a year and a half, in which her school provided no legal representation nor procedure for sexual assault. Police officers treated her case as juvenile. She endured trials that were invasive of her personal life; Gray had to visit court every six weeks, and the man who assaulted her wanted a copy of therapy sessions and information on her sexual history. When the trial was finished, it was almost two years later and the man was finally found guilty.
Gray did not feel like she won. She felt haunted by the ordeal and the process that it took to receive “justice”, which was too long and required sacrificing her personal life to an experience she relived every day. Currently, the man is being considered for an appeal.
As a woman, I find it appalling that people who claim intolerance to sexual assault and tell women to speak up do not believe those who come forward. The justice system shouldn’t prolong serious cases like this. They should make it their duty to provide adequate representation. That way, victims of similar crimes can find peace and move on, while the guilty receive rightful punishment.
Architects of Justice provided an honest insight into the legal world. But there is hope, as the evening’s storytellers proved. There are people who seek to improve the legal system and protect the innocent by following their morals.