Time for Nova Scotia’s Attorney General to step up

Landry Herschorn copy

Director of Public Prosecutions Martin Herschorn (left) and former Justice Minister Ross Landry.

Last fall, Nova Scotia’s Liberal government coasted to an easy electoral victory and among their many promises was a commitment to spend $6 million during a three-year span to boost funding to sexual assault support centres and create a prevention strategy.

Seven months after taking power, Lena Metlege Diab, the Liberal government’s Justice Minister and Attorney General, had an opportunity to do something to prevent sexual assault and failed to do it.

Although there have been no charges of sexual assault in the Rehtaeh Parsons case, it has been alleged that sexual assault took place. The definition of sexual consent is integral to the case and there is a great opportunity to educate people about this.

In light of what happened to Rehtaeh Parsons, keeping her name in a public discussion about sexual consent and cyberbullying — and allowing the media to use her name without restriction — would serve a clear public benefit to women, men, girls, and boys.

As the Attorney General, Metlege Diab has the power to order the Public Prosecution Service to not prosecute any media that violate the publication ban in this case. It says so right in the Public Prosecutions Act.

Power and duties of Attorney General:

6 The Attorney General is the minister responsible for the prosecution service and is accountable to the Assembly for all prosecutions to which this Act applies and

(a) after consultation with the Director of Public Prosecutions, may issue general instructions or guidelines in respect of all prosecutions, or a class of prosecutions, to the prosecution service … (and)

(b) after consultation with the Director of Public Prosecutions, may issue instructions or guidelines in a particular prosecution …

So, given that Metlege Diab has the power, it is disappointing that she wouldn’t exercise it in the Rehtaeh Parsons case. Furthermore, it is odd that if she is the elected person who must answer to the Legislative Assembly, and ultimately the people of this province, that she would let a bureaucrat speak on her behalf. That’s what she did when she let Martin Herschorn, the Director of Public Prosecutions, respond to letters from Nancy Rubin, a lawyer representing the media, and Glen Canning, the father of Rehtaeh Parsons, in which they requested a pronouncement that violations of the publication ban would not be prosecuted.

In the letter, Herschorn said it was “unprecedented for this Service and inappropriate in this context” to issue the pronouncement.

Here’s the catch though, it’s not unprecedented. Michael Baker did it in 2003 to prevent a waste of resources prosecuting firearms registration offences because they would soon be made legal. As for it being inappropriate, with all due respect to Mr. Herschorn, he’s wrong. It is the right thing to do because protecting the identity of a girl who has died, and who became a household name when she committed suicide because the justice system failed her, is the prime example of doing too little, too late.

As if refusing to act wasn’t enough, Herschorn went one step further to seemingly create the perfect Catch-22. He said the Public Prosecution Service only gets involved in reviewing cases once a crime has been committed and once a charge is laid. Essentially, the only way for the Public Prosecution Service would offer an opinion on this matter would be for the media to take the risk of breaking the ban and hoping they wouldn’t be prosecuted. So far, no mainstream media have taken what is a minimal risk, but there have been exceptions.

Glen Canning has broken the ban, Leah Parsons has broken the ban, and I’ve broken the ban. So far, none of us have been charged. Come on in folks, the water’s fine.

Much is made of the Nova Scotia Public Prosecution Service being the first in Canada to be independent from political control. This is a good thing, but before you start the slow clap, let’s take a look back at why Nova Scotia did this back in 1990. It wasn’t some bold innovation. On the contrary, it was cod liver oil served up to the politicians by the Marshall Inquiry.

Two prominent members of John Buchanan’s Tory government – Billy Joe MacLean and Roland Thornhill — were deemed to have received preferential treatment by prosecutors during criminal investigations. The Marshall Inquiry said that, in both cases, the Attorney General of the day relied on misleading or poor reports from Deputy Attorney General Gordon Coles and recommended that the public prosecution service be largely independent of political control.

Nowadays, the Nova Scotia Public Prosecution Service touts itself as being an independent body and it seems proud, almost strident about that, but they act as if the Attorney General, who is answerable to the Legislature, the government and the people of this province, can’t tell them how to do their job.

She can, just has to do it in a public way and can’t give hush-hush orders to protect political cronies or friends. This limitation on the operational independence of the Director of Public Prosecutions is spelled out on the department’s website.

The Attorney General can issue written instructions to the Director of Public Prosecutions and these instructions are binding, but must be made public. The purpose of this is explained by the following excerpt:

This procedure preserves the ultimate prosecutorial authority of the Attorney General. This is a means of ensuring accountability to the electorate for the manner in which public prosecutions are conducted.

In this case, Metlege Diab would make a public pronouncement that would be well-received by the electorate, but so far, her inaction on this issue is as disappointing as the original reaction of her predecessor Ross Landry, the NDP Justice Minister who made this callous remark on April 9, 2013, two days after Rehtaeh Parsons was taken off life support:

“If the evidence isn’t in place, we can’t second-guess every investigation.”

Remember, this is a ban that Rehtaeh Parsons’ parents don’t want, an Ontario Crown Attorney prosecuting the case doesn’t want, and one which Judge Jamie Campbell said doesn’t serve any purpose in this case. So, while the learned judge was rightly applying the law, common sense and justice get short shrift.

As a result of this ban, organizers of two events in Ontario (one in Kingston, the other in Cornwall) have cancelled public speaking engagements for Glen Canning.

That’s the chill that has been created by this ban and it’s got to stop. This is a tremendous opportunity for Nova Scotia’s first female Attorney General to do the right thing.

One of the accused is due back in court for sentencing on Nov. 13 and the other is scheduled for a trial later in the month.

By then, let’s hope that Metlege Diab has given the media the green light to use Rehtaeh Parsons’ name again – without restrictions.

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Don’t wait for legal reform — push for it

roderick-macdonald

Roderick Macdonald was a contrarian and innovator who shaped legal reform in Canada.

Most Canadians probably think legal reform is something best left to lawyers and politicians. Reflect on that for a few minutes and ask yourself if you want to leave it entirely up to them. Consider to whom they might be beholden and don’t leave it up to others to make the kind of country you want.

In the Internet age, there is greater opportunity to participate in democracy and participate in discussions. The Internet is  to us as the agora was to ancient Greece. It is an amazing medium, but some people are using it to great harm and our justice system doesn’t seem to be able to keep pace.

As Hilary Beaumont wrote in her excellent article in The Coast there are people using the Internet to commit crimes that police say are beyond the current scope of the law. In some cases that’s true, but in many cases police and prosecutors just need the mental dexterity to apply existing laws to new crimes that fit under their umbrella.

I’m a firm believer in democracy, despite its flaws, but there is a lack of accountability and transparency in our government and bureaucracy. There is also an overwhelming urge to dither instead acting clearly and decisively to do the right thing. You should never be afraid to do the right thing under the circumstances. If you’re afraid of future consequences, then you adjust your actions to mitigate or eliminate those.

After writing about the publication ban in the Rehtaeh Parsons case, someone contacted me and offered to help. It was great to hear a total stranger offer me words of encouragement and legal support if I needed it. He also shared with me some new inspiration: former McGill University law professor Roderick Macdonald.

In May, Macdonald gave what was perhaps his last interview at a symposium in Montreal, and a few of his comments are worthy of a valedictory address for a man who had a profound impact on legal reform in our country.

“Many, many people believe that the law is a one-way projection of authority from lawmakers or law-givers to citizens, who are merely passive respondents to what the commands of the people in authority are. The best way to achieve a harmonious and peaceful society is to recognize that people have within themselves the capacity to do what is appropriate under the circumstances, and that the law should be designed to facilitate their agency.”

Now that a growing number of people have broken the publication ban in the Rehtaeh Parsons case, Glen Canning has asked the Attorney General and the Public Prosecution Service of Nova Scotia to issue a pronouncement saying they will not prosecute. We wait, but hopefully they will make a decision before the next court appearance. Meanwhile, media outside Canada, including one of the world’s most respected newspapers — The Guardian — are covering it and using Rehtaeh’s name in their coverage.

Hopefully, they’re convinced the ban has been broken. If they’re not convinced, then keep doing your part to break it. It’s about nothing more than making sure public officials are held accountable for their actions — or inaction — and for this to be done with public scrutiny.

Radio interview about publication ban

Rick Howe had me on his show this afternoon. I agreed not to mention Rehtaeh Parsons’ name during the interview, but that is the case we are talking about.

If you’d like to listen, here’s a link.

Publication ban is pointless

Canning Parsons

Glen Canning (left) and Leah Parsons have fought to keep their daughter’s name alive.

One of the beauties of being a freelancer is that I don’t have to worry about consulting lawyers or publishers, I can just follow my gut and do what a journalist is supposed to do.

To paraphrase the Mr. Dooley character of American humorist Finley Peter Dunne: It’s the job of journalists to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”

Sometimes, you get the opportunity to do both and when those opportunities arise, you must seize them. Yesterday, more than any other day, it was important to use Rehtaeh Parsons’ name.

The guilty plea of one of the accused was validation for her and her family. Any journalist with a sense of public good would recognize that you’d need to link yesterday’s development back to April 2013, when the whole world knew her name and the eyes of the world were on Nova Scotia because of the failure of our justice system to lay any charges.

There was a clear purpose to my post and I’m not content to wait for politicians to change the law. I’m going to point out its flaws, why it needs to be amended, and why it should not apply in this case. I also consulted with Rehtaeh Parsons’ parents – Leah Parsons and Glen Canning — and got a blessing from both of them to break the ban.

Also, reading the judge’s decision from May gave me confidence that it was a pretty safe path if I chose my steps carefully. I was not flouting it just for the sake of flouting it. Former colleague Stephen Kimber, a professor of journalism at King’s College, suggested in a Facebook discussion that “there’s a danger when we start violating bans because we believe it’s wrong in one particular instance.”

“What if another reporter decides to name an alleged rape victim, or a child abuse victim because they think it’s justified. Do we get to decide when the law applies and when it doesn’t? And, given that everyone already knows who the victim is in this case, is it really necessary to break the ban to make the argument it is wrong here, or to write in a way that makes the connections for the reader without specifically naming the victim?”

In this case, I take to heart the comments made by Judge Jamie Campbell when he wrote in his decision: “It’s a ban that everyone wants, just not in this case.”

To see Judge Campbell’s decision, click here.

Clearly, it’s a good law, but it just doesn’t work in this instance. A judge, our director of public prosecutions, and our Attorney General had an opportunity to fix that, but none took the opportunities available to them for various reasons. You say that “everyone” knows her name, but I think that only those closely connected to the case would make the crucial connection if not for the efforts of the victim’s parents — Glen Canning and Leah Parsons — who have been breaking the ban.

I’m not claiming the right for me or any other journalist to decide when the law applies and when it doesn’t. But remember, both of Rehtaeh’s parents opposed the ban and the Crown fought it, too. Also, when the Crown reviews a complaint — if there is one — they will consider the intent of Parliament in drafting the law, the wishes of the parents, and whether the public interest is served in prosecuting.

Precisely the things that I considered before writing the post.

Guilty plea in Rehtaeh Parsons case

rehtaeh parsons

Rehtaeh Parsons committed suicide in April 2013. Her death helped spark a new police investigation.

A young man who took the picture used to shame and bully Rehtaeh Parsons has pleaded guilty to production of child pornography.

He admitted to taking the picture of another boy, a co-accused in the case, who was in the picture with Rehtaeh in November 2011 when he was 17 and Rehtaeh was 15. Neither of the accused, who were both under 18 at the time, can be named. Their identities are protected by the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

Crown Attorney Alex Smith read an agreed statement of facts to Halifax Provincial Court Judge Greg Lenehan.

Smith describes the image which shows one boy, naked from the waist down, behind Rehtaeh and pressing his genital region up against her while giving a thumbs-up sign. Rehtaeh Parsons is naked from the waist down.

“At the time the photograph was taken, (one of the accused) was having sex with Rehtaeh Parsons as she was vomiting out the window,” Smith told the court.

The youth in court today faced charges of production and distribution of child pornography. The Crown dropped the charge of distribution.

Another boy, the one in the picture who is charged only with distribution of child pornography, is scheduled to go on trial in November.

There is also a publication ban on the identity of the victim, Rehtaeh Parsons, despite the opposition of the Crown Attorney and her parents. Four Nova Scotia media outlets fought the ban in May, but Judge Jamie Campbell said it was a statutory ban that he had to impose – even though it didn’t make sense because her name was already so well known. In reporting this story today, media outlets continue to observe the ban.

It is the law of the country and judges must do their duty and enforce the law passed by Parliament. That is why the judge cannot be faulted in this case.

This post respectfully disregards the publication ban because a greater public good is served by doing so.

There is a higher goal than upholding the law and that is justice; something that judges, especially those that practice judicial restraint, sometimes do not consider.

There is an oft-told story of a conversation between two great American jurists, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Learned Hand, who met for lunch one day.

As Holmes began to drive away, Hand implored him to “Do justice, sir, do justice!”

Holmes stopped and admonished his fellow judge with this retort: “That is not my job. It is my job to apply the law.”

In the absence of an activist judge, or an Attorney General or Director of Public Prosecutions willing to make a public pronouncement that no charges will be laid in this case, it is left to the media to wonder about the safety of violating the ban.

Henry David Thoreau, in his essay Civil Disobedience, encouraged people to disobey what he called “unjust laws.”

Thoreau wrote: “Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?”

Let me be clear. It’s not that this law is unjust. It is that it is unjust in this case and should be ignored.

Clearly, this is an exception that Parliament did not think of when they passed the law and they need to amend it.

Lastly, there is a clause in the Youth Criminal Justice Act that allows for the parents of a victim to waive the privacy rights of their children. Glen Canning and Leah Parsons have done so in this case, but Judge Campbell chose not to accept that argument, saying that the Criminal Code provision wins the day – even though it doesn’t really make any sense in this case. See decision here.

Rehtaeh Parsons’ name brings power to any discussion about sexual consent, cyber-bullying, and suicide prevention. Her case prompted important legal reforms in Nova Scotia and the rest of Canada. The federal government, which is working on passing Bill C-13 to counter cyber-bullying, is doing so partly because of what happened to Rehtaeh Parsons.

Most importantly, this change of plea needs to be connected to the case at a time when publication of her name was permitted.

Why?

Because of the way the police and the Public Prosecution Service handled the case. Initially, the police focussed their investigation — such as it was — on sexual assault after an incident in November 2011. They spent most of their early efforts investigating Rehtaeh and took a long time – several months – before interviewing the four teenage boys alleged to have raped her when she was extremely intoxicated.

The Nova Scotia Public Prosecution Service reviewed the case, but didn’t lay charges because there wasn’t a strong enough likelihood of a conviction. It was dubbed a “he said, she said” case amid claims that Rehtaeh had made advances, or at least appeared willing earlier in the evening.

By the time the picture was taken, as the agreed statement of facts read into court today would indicate, Rehtaeh was not in any state to be consenting to sex.

Amazingly, the existence of a photograph of a minor engaged in a sexual act did not spark law enforcement professionals involved in the investigation to consider laying a charge of production and distribution of child pornography. Canning said police and school officials knew of the photo’s existence within a week of it being taken.

“They allowed this image to spread even knowing that this was child pornography. They knew who had it and who was doing it and there was nothing done to stop it,” he said. “Every time it was shared, it victimized Rehtaeh.”

The photo spread like wildfire through her community in a suburb of Halifax. Fellow students called Rehtaeh Parsons a slut and some total strangers texted her and asked her if she wanted to have sex with them. The bullying became too much so she switched schools and sought counselling. She claimed she was raped, but no charges were laid and this added to the grief. She struggled for months, but in April 2013, she committed suicide by hanging herself in the bathroom with a belt.

Her case attracted worldwide attention and even prompted the intervention of Anonymous, who started #OpJustice4Rehtaeh to get the police to reopen the case. The police reopened the case and, amid the furor, some people defended the four boys saying that the sex was consensual.

Within a few months, the police laid charges of production and distribution of child pornography against two of the four boys, but some claimed it was just a way to put an end to mounting public pressure.

Today’s guilty plea should put an end to those claims.

When Judge Greg Lenehan told the young man to meet with a probation officer and cooperate with them in the preparation of a pre-sentence report, he responded in a subdued voice. “Yes, sir.”

He is scheduled to return to court for sentencing on Nov. 13.

For Leah Parsons, Rehtaeh’s mother, nothing will ever bring her daughter back. But keeping her memory alive and using it to make some important changes, means a great deal to her.

“None of it is enough, but the fact that he’s pleading guilty is some consolation,” she said. “I do feel some solace in that she just wanted to be validated and she wanted people to know that this actually happened to her.”

Trashing the litterbugs

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My daughter was only about four years old when we were out at a park and she noticed some litter on the ground.

“Oh, look,” she said. “Somebody forgot their garbage.”

We produce way more than our share of garbage in North America that the least we can do of it is properly dispose of it. When I was a kid, we were taught that littering was bad. Then, we tried to add another layer of responsibility on top of that and it seems like the North American brain short-circuited.

“Recycle and dispose of my garbage? But I’ve got TV shows to watch,” I imagine the modern-day neanderthal saying.

We live in a society with too many lazy slobs and not enough people who care. The evidence is overwhelming. Yesterday, my son took part in “Clean up to win,” a neighbourhood clean-up that coincides with the end of Tim Hortons’ Roll Up the Rim to Win contest. In about three hours, one person picked up more than 500 empty cups that had been discarded in Spryfield. He was not alone, many others from the Adventure Earth Centre in Halifax, who are part of HEAT (Helping the Earth by Acting Together) are participating in the clean-up. Tonight, those who participate get to enter their name into a draw for prizes. To be fair, there was some other garbage from a local McDonald’s, but about two-thirds of it originated from Tim Hortons.

This is the kind of contest we need. One that helps prevent litter and waste, rather than causing it.

Happy Earth Day, everyone.

How to avoid car-pedestrian accidents

We here at the Department of Common Sense are alarmed at the high number of car-pedestrian accidents in Halifax.

There is a lot of finger-pointing and, if blame were to be meted out, it would be assigned equally as both motorists and pedestrians are to blame. The finger-pointing is counter-productive, though, so we think it’s best to focus on solutions.

To my fellow pedestrians: When you’re lying in a hospital bed, it doesn’t make you feel any better to have been right that you had the right of way. I walk more than I drive, but when I walk, I always make sure that I have made eye contact with the driver and that I see a noticeable slowing down before I cross. There have been many times that this has made me a spectator to an inattentive motorist zooming in front of me, and, while it is frustrating, it is painless.

On the rare occasion that I drive, I always make an effort to look at the pedestrian and make a gesture to let them know that I’ve seen them. To drivers: stay off your cellphone, don’t put makeup on in the car, and for God’s sake keep your dogs off your lap. You’re driving a big hunk of metal and your job is do it safely. There are pedestrians out and about. Keep an eye out for them.

In 29 years of driving and 40 years as a pedestrian, this simple technique has prevented car-pedestrian accidents involving yours truly. (Knock on wood)

This is a public service message from the Department of Common Sense.