Retired Superior Court Justice Joseph Donohue with his daughter, Sarnia lawyer Sarah Donohue. (Submitted photo)Retired Superior Court Justice Joseph Donohue with his daughter, Sarnia lawyer Sarah Donohue. (Submitted photo)

Retired Sarnia justice passes judgement on virtual hearings, legal aid

A retired Sarnia judge believes it's very difficult to give someone a fair trial when everybody is on a screen.

Joseph Donohue was required to hang up his gown and gavel in early April after turning 75, the mandatory retirement age set for Superior Court justices.

Donohue spoke recently with Blackburn News about his 22 years on the bench, expressing how this past pandemic year has certainly stuck out.

Donohue said he doesn't really think court proceedings, in fairness to the public, can be conducted over a screen or through cyberspace.

"Given the gravity of the consequences of court proceedings, we cannot trade the solemnity and ceremonial nature of the process for mere convenience," said Donohue. "The results of court proceedings can irrevocably change persons' lives."

Donohue said the challenge of weighing credibility, which is perhaps the most subtle job of a judge, is terribly compounded by the fact that everyone appears virtually.

"By their nature, trials from time immemorial going way back to the ancient Greeks and the Romans, have involved live testimony and live presentations of the issues, and to do it on a screen is just not the same. To make the assessment of credibility of witnesses is really impossible when someone is sitting in front of a screen."

Donohue's time as a justice was preceded by a 28-year career as a Sarnia lawyer.

He said when he hung out his shingle in 1971, the whole concept of the legal aid plan for indigent persons had just emerged in Ontario.

"Unfortunately over the 50 years in the interim, the funding for lawyers representing indigent people has fallen way below a reasonable level, and so now the lawyers are really providing a charity to represent people that can't pay for their own defence."

Donohue believes this is the main shortcoming of our judicial system.

"The problem is that the taxpayer and the politicians that pass the laws in Toronto put the rights of persons charged with offences pretty far down on their list of priorities."

Donohue said justice can only prevail if both sides get a vigorous representation, adding we operate under our Charter of Rights with a system where everyone has a right to have their defence presented well and thoroughly.

Despite this shortcoming, Donohue believes we are blessed with a beautiful judicial system here in Ontario and in Canada at large.

"We've always had a better system, I would say very strongly, than our friends across the border. Too much politics enters into it over there [in the United States]. I think that's the problem."

Donohue said his retirement has been quite an adjustment and kind of bittersweet.

He said being taken on as a legal advisor by his daughter, lawyer Sarah Donohue, is a great consolation.

Donohue is also making himself available to anyone else in the bar who wants the perspective of a former judge.

"Otherwise, I have a lot of whimsical hobbies in the musical and sailing line that I hope to be able to pursue."

Donohue was accepted into law school at the University of Toronto in 1965. He returned to Sarnia when he was called to the bar and has been in the city ever since.

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