SEAN FINE – JUSTICE WRITER
KITCHENER, ONT. — The Globe and Mail
PublishedFriday, Dec. 13 2013, 10:46 PM EST
Last updatedFriday, Dec. 13 2013, 10:46 PM EST
Justice Colin Westman still remembers when, as a young lawyer who had barely outgrown a pampered childhood in Shawinigan, Que., he first read the pre-sentence reports that contain the life stories of convicted men and women.
“It was like fiction,” the 70-year-old father of two tells a reporter in his Kitchener, Ont., office during a morning break from court. “I couldn’t believe the tragic backgrounds of some of these people. From the day they were born, they were behind the eight-ball.”
Today, after more than two decades of seeing a steady procession of those people, whom he calls broken souls, in his courtroom, Justice Westman has become one of many in several provinces defying the spirit, and sometimes the letter, of the Conservative government’s tough-on-crime agenda.
As of Oct. 24, the government has doubled financial penalties assessed on convicted criminals – $100 per summary offence, $200 per indictable offence – and removed justices’ discretion to waive them for impoverished offenders. The money is for victims’ services such as rape crisis centres and witness programs.
That mandatory charge, and to some extent the government’s broader crime agenda, has run smack into Justice Westman and an independent judiciary.
“It’s a sham to say, ‘Oh, we’re going to get you money off the backs of these kinds of people,’” says the sturdily built white-haired judge, a member of the Ontario Court of Justice. “They don’t even have a method of collecting. It’s embarrassing. And why aren’t victims looked after in our general revenues, if you really have a heart?”
The new law may seem small next to others passed by the Conservative government that have limited judges’ discretion. Justices are required to apply dozens of new mandatory minimum sentences. They can no longer use house arrest as an alternative to jail for many crimes, including some non-violent ones. Limits are stricter on how much credit judges can give people for time in jail before sentencing.
But the fight over the financial penalties has become a rare, open clash between the judiciary and Parliament. It is about more than making all people who commit crimes pay for victim services. It is about the limits of judicial independence and justices’ right to speak publicly.
“I live in the community, too,” says Justice Westman, who was appointed to the bench by Liberal premier David Peterson in 1990. “I’m not just a judge. I think sometimes these things have to be discussed openly.
“Those people in the soup kitchens I see in the courtroom, they don’t have a voice. I think I have an obligation to them. These are my brothers and sisters, from a theological perspective.” Justice Westman wears a Christian cross under his judicial vestments.
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