blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Friday, October 16, 2015


IVSTITIA (Justice), outside the Supreme Court of Canada:
detail of a bronze sculpture by W S Allward
Group photo in the Federal Court of Appeal

People who couldn't get into the Supreme Court could watch
 and listen to the trial from an overflow room downstairs
The Supreme Court was busy last Thursday with 100 people present to hear the conclusion of a case concerning Aboriginal rights. Our Diplomatic Hospitality Group was on the premises too, sitting in the Federal Court of Appeal downstairs, on the western side of the building. We were there to learn about the structure of the court and its history, as expounded by a young gentleman called Cédric.

The entrance to the Supreme Court is through
the doors upstairs
Before coming into the lobby, we had to be searched and frisked for weapons. (It wasn't like that the last time I visited, a decade or so ago.) The lobby is built of Italian marble; the inner courts were constructed during the 2nd World War (1939-41), using wood imported from West Africa and Australia, immaculately varnished. All the interior was designed in a French, art déco style, very symmetrical, by an architect from Montréal, Ernest Cormier.

It is part of "a very hierarchical system," Cédric explained. Courts of Appeal are presided over by three judges, and there are seventeen such courts throughout Canada. In Nunavut, no specific buildings are set aside, so they use the local libraries or even gyms. The biggest questions of public importance––maybe 50 cases a year––are tried in the Supreme Court in Ottawa, where five, seven or nine judges sit. This is the big room upstairs. If the public benches are full, as they were during our visit, the people who didn't gain admission can watch the trial on big screens in the lobby and in the room below the stairs. Headphones are provided so that people can hear what's going on, too.

The Supreme Court judges are appointed by the Prime Minister and presently comprise four women and five men. Since the year 2000 the Chief Justice (Puisne Justice) in Canada has been Beverley McClachlin, the longest serving person in that position in Canadian history. She will have to retire by the time she is 75.

Canada's Supreme Court was created as long ago as 1875 and originally employed six judges to hear the final appeal. This being an even number, the defendant still had recourse to a further option if the verdict was undecided; the case was ultimately taken across the Atlantic to the Privy Council of the United Kingdom. This system continued for 50 years before an extra judge was added to the quota, but until 1949 London was still the last resort. Then the Canadian legal system finally became independent.

How long does it take, someone asked, before an appealed case comes to its conclusion? It can take up to 18 months for an application for appeal to be processed and then, even after the Supreme Court trial, perhaps another four months before the judgement is received. The hearing itself usually takes two to three hours and Cédric told us we'd probably find it boring because it's "all legal gibberish". The Supreme Court basically looks for errors of law in the previous trials. If we are interested in following a case, we can either come and sit in the public galleries, watch it live on the website, or hear a webcast in retrospect.

Because this blog is about juxtapositions, I'll add one more paragraph.

A kleroterion from Athens
Chris and I went to see Les Grecs at the Canadian Museum of History on Thanksgiving Monday (the last day of the exhibition), and we discovered that the ancient Greeks had administered trials by jury as long ago as the 5th century BCE. Jurors were chosen by means of a sort of random number generator, a kleroterion, a stone with slits in it, into which each man's token was fitted. After the prosecutor and defence council had each spoken for six minutes, the jurors made their verdict by selecting bronze discs indicating "Guilty" or "Not Guilty" and placing them in receptacles (urns), accordingly. They could hide their verdict in the palm of their hand, so that it became a secret ballot. In those days, they had the sense to elect an odd number of jurors.

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