Equanimity and Criminal Law

One of the many challenges of practicing criminal law is the toll it can take on one's sense of balance, temperament, and overall view of the justice system. As recent news events have shown in reaction to noted criminal lawyer Marie Henein's planned speech to universities in eastern Canada, the role of criminal defence lawyer can be a lightning rod for those who are dissatisfied with the outcome in certain cases.

Criminal law is a zero-sum game. There are, at least in court, definite winners and losers. Because of this fact, people often lose sight of its critical role in our society, the way it channels potential tears in our social fabric caused by tragic events like homicide, the collapse of businesses, or the use of dangerous substances by our youth. Without the justice system, those events would threaten the integrity of our communities. The courts replace vigilante justice with a process by which both sides to a tragedy can place their trust in. 

But that does not mean that those directly involved in the event itself will be satisfied. More than that, often people who are not directly involved as witnesses, complainants, accused, or family members feel that too have a stake in a particular court case.

That's not entirely without reason. People may have a stake in the outcome because they work in an area dedicated to advancing the rights of victims or those accused of committing crimes. Criminal defence lawyers often feel just as swept up in a case they are not working on as community activists who actively criticize the justice system.  

While most criminal lawyers I have talked to applauded the outcome in R. v. Jian Ghomeshi, many of the same people would be quick to criticize other aspects of the justice system. Legal institutions must try to satisfy very many vested interests - the presumed innocent, the victimized, prosecutors, defence lawyers, community interest groups, police officers, and more. The list of those who push and pull on the justice system is long and diverse. Most of those groups feel strongly about the interests they represent.

Furthermore, any system that boasts of "justice" as its key deliverable is bound to disappoint.

In my opinion, the Canadian system of criminal justice is very good at meeting its goal of resolving social wrongs. It has retained the essential attributes of the English adversarial system. It has adopted a set of universal rights that grew out of centuries' old democratic revolutions in France and the United States and the more recent universal declaration of human rights that came out of World War II. Our system is also subject to constant evolution that responds to our changing social norms. 

It is about as perfect as the rest of our society, which is to say that it is not perfect at all. Given that reality, a good dose of equanimity is necessary for those who work in or want to improve upon it. Projecting malicious intent onto one's perceived adversaries is rarely helpful because it is rarely true. Being tossed to and fro by the tumultuous wins and losses that are inevitable in a political or legal struggle will not serve you well either. 

Having an even temperament and even a generous view of those who oppose or disappoint you will lead to a more satisfying level of engagement and probably a better track record. It removes clinical bias from perception and it is that bias, one's own presumed correctness, that can be the biggest barrier to clarity - and in the end, success in all pursuits.