A recent article in the Globe and Mail, “The Judge Who Writes Like a Paperback Novelist”, raised the issue of what kind of writing style judges should use in their decisions. For instance, one recent decision of Ontario Court of Appeal’s Justice David Watts begins with the following scene-setting lines: “Early one morning in June, 2006, Melvin [F.] closed the book on his relationship with Cindy [M.]. With a butcher knife embedded in Cindy’s back. Fifty-three blunt force injuries.”
Critics of Justice Watts’ writing style have taken issue with what they view as a light-hearted tone that trivializes the subject matter. On the other hand, Justice Watts’ supporters argue that his writing style is more accessible than “traditional” judicial writing, and that judges should be encouraged to write in a compelling manner so that the public will want to read decisions.
As the Globe article points out, Justice Watt is not the first Ontario judge whose writing style has come under scrutiny. One recent family law decision of Justice Quinn, full of wry commentary and dry wit, quickly went viral in late 2010, attracting attention even abroad. His sarcasm was aimed squarely at the feuding ex-spouses engaged in protrated litigation for spousal support and custody of their two children. For instance, the husband in that case frequently vented his anger by sending his ex insulting text messages and giving her ‘the finger’ as he drove by her home. Justice Quinn observed that “a finger is worth a thousand words and therefore, is particularly useful should one have a vocabulary of less than a thousand words.” Anticipating critique of his tone, Justice Quinn indicated that the parties before him were “immune to reason” and consequently his decision “tried ridicule as a last resort.”
In the estates context, I am reminded of the frustration that judges must feel in some particularly ugly guardianship disputes. Should judges hearing such disputes ridicule the parties in order to encourage them to change their behaviour? Humourous or colourful judicial decisions may attract media attention to a case, which may or may not always be desirable. The children in Justice Quinn’s decision may not appreciate their parents’ dispute being in the public eye (and their local newspapers – which at least in one article graciously did not identify the parties by name), even if this media attention also may have educated the public about the negative effects of protracted family law litigation. Similarly in guardianship disputes, the person over whom guardianship is sought certainly may not want any media attention. While ensuring judicial decisions are read and that the law is accessible are important concerns, the interests of the innocent, often silent parties in guardianship disputes need to be considered, too.
Thanks for reading,