Some (Rare) Legal Comedic Relief

Most of us will agree that doing legal research is generally tedious (and frustrating when you get the same results over and over again no matter what search words you use, without finding anything on point !). But once in a while, you will come across a funny case which will somehow make your day a little brighter. In the post-Lord Denning era, this is a post on my recent Canadian favourites.

Bruni v. Bruni, 2010 ONSC 6568 :

Contrary to Quebec, Ontario publishes the names of parties to divorce proceedings. These two, Catherine and Larry, probably wish they lived in Quebec.

Besides the fact that the first sentence of the judgment reads « Paging Dr. Freud, paging Dr. Freud », it contains detailed factual accounts and personal assessments which no sensible person would ever want published, not the least of which are Justice J.W. Quinn’s incessant comments along the lines of « Here, a husband and wife have been marinating in a mutual hatred so intense as to surely amount to a personality disorder requiring treatment », and « the parties require therapeutic intervention rather than legal attention ». Justice Quinn’s admitted attempt at ridiculing the couple in his judgment is exacerbated by his numerous afterthought footnotes, some of which I have to reproduce here :

2. At some point in the trial, I asked Catherine : « If you could push a button and make Larry disappear from the face of the earth, would you push it ? » Her I-just-won-the-lottery smile implied the answer I expected.

3. I am prepared to certify a class action for the return of the wedding gifts.

[…]

6. Larry gave evidence that, less than one month later, Catherine « tried to run me over with a van ». This is always a telltale sign that a husband and wife are drifting apart.

[…]

22. When the operator of a motor vehicle yells « jackass » at a pedestrian, the jackassedness of the former has been proved, but, at that point, it is only an allegation as against the latter.

[…]

26. The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines « dickhead » as a « stupid person ». That would not have been my first guess.

But the comedy comes by and large from the judge’s detailed factual account of the couple’s marital troubles, the need for this level of detail being explained in the introduction :

On fourteen occasions, within eighteen months, the parties drew the police into their petty disagreements – a sad commentary on their inability to get along and a shocking abuse of the Niagara Regional Police Service. Although this statistic probably sums up all that one needs to know about the parties, I will elaborate for the doubters.

Justice Quinn then proceeds to air out the most unflattering dirty laundry of the parties in a way that ensures lawyers and law students from sea to sea will hear about the saga of Mr. and Mrs. Bruni. For example, the last footnote above is appended to a description of the parties’ attitude towards one another when : « In August of 2010, Taylor [their daughter] was having an access visit with Larry, when she received a text message from Catherine that read : Is dickhead there ? ».

The rest is worth a full read.

(For more of Justice Quinn’s particular style, Miller v. Carley, 2009 CanLII 39065 is another judgment which does not hold back, from the very beginning: “The parties dispute ownership of the winning [lottery] ticket. If the ticket were a child and the parties vying for custody, I would find them both unfit and bring in Family and Children’s Services”).

R. v. Duncan, 2013 ONCJ 160 :

Another one from Ontario, this time from Justice Fergus O’Donnell. Although arising out of an unremarkable traffic violation, the case’s comedic aspect comes largely from Justice O’Donnell’s particularly witty writing style and use of literary figures (both stylistic and characteristic).

Justice O’Donnell, who generally sits in Toronto, begins his tale by explaining that a fellow judge suggested they exchange positions for a « fortnight », giving the colleague exposure to the cases in the Toronto district, « while I would enjoy a similar change of environment in the more sylvan environs of Niagara Region. I might even see a few plays in the evenings, he pointed out ».

While most self-represented litigants can prove to be headaches for courts and opposing counsel, the Duncan case counters that sometimes, they provide comedic relief in the conduct of an otherwise drab trial, a trial which Justice O’Donnell described as a « slight detour through territory that might have confused Lewis Carroll ». One can only imagine.

In the present case, the Defendant began by producing an affidavit contesting the Court’s jurisdiction, which the judge described as « a rather substantial volume that appeared to me to be the result of somebody doing a Google search for terms such as « jurisdiction » and the like and then cobbling them together in such a way that it makes James Joyce’s Ulysses look like an easy read ». The trial seems to have been a confusing mish-mash of pleadings to say the least, as related by Justice O’Donnell : « The prospect of disentangling Mr. Duncan’s adopted argument and his volume of internet-driven gibberish made me wonder if, for some reason, the gods had me in their cross-hairs ». Thankfully, as Justice O’Donnell explains in a section entitled “The Gods Are Kind”, the Alberta case of Meads v. Meads provided precedent for not considering the detail of Mr. Duncan’s jurisdictional arguments, calling the date the judgment in Meads v. Meads was rendered “a day that will shine in virtue”.

Other than the obvious comedy elicited by the Defendant’s behaviour itself, the judge meets the Defendant halfway throughout the judgment and its footnotes. Apparently, you should always read Ontario judges’ footnotes :

2. It has been said that, given enough time, ten thousand monkeys with typewriters would probably eventually replicate the collected works of William Shakespeare. For readers under the age of thirty or so, the « typewriter » was a mechanical device used for creating documents that pre-dated the computer and lacked some of the computer’s more annoying characteristics, in particular, the computer’s facilitation of cutting and pasting, which is undoubtedly one of the four horsemen of the modern apocalypse and which has cost many trees their lives and many lawyers and judges their eyesight.

[…]

4. The “internet”, also known as the “world-wide web” is a bi-polar electronic Leviathan that has erupted on the world scene in the past two decades […] However, just as the printing press has been put to odious use from time to time, the internet has its own Jekyll and Hyde nature: it is a near certainty that future generations will look back at these decades, obsessed as we are with the twin behemoths of “reality” television and the “ooh, look at me, I must tell the world what I had for breakfast” narcissism of social media and at the billions of hours thus lost to a near psychotropic electronic escape from any useful pursuit and wonder if Aldous Huxley only got a few details wrong in Brave New World.

 

Langevin (Re), 2012 QCCS 613 :

Probably my favourite one of all, for its subject matter at least. This action was instituted in the Quebec Superior Court by a Mr. Langevin, seeking a declaration that he owned the Earth. The claims, attached as Annexes 1 and 2 to the Judgment, were handwritten and, of course, resemble a manifesto more than a legal proceeding. For one, they begin with [translation] « Good day, Honourable Court ! », and ask the Court to render judgment allowing the Claimant to take possession of the Earth at the “opportune” time. The claims also denounce a so-called force majeure, which Mr. Langevin describes as the Court clerk’s refusal to open a new file.

Of course, no defendant was named because, as noted by the Claimant himself, [translation] « If there was a Respondent, it would be God, but He is not tangible and not compellable as a party ». Good point.

Mr. Langevin begins by explaining in his proceeding that as he was organizing his papers, he found newspaper articles on China’s plans to send orbital stations into space, which apparently was unacceptable to Mr. Langevin.

The Claimant sought to amend his action at trial, in order to add Neptune and Pluto, as well as the space between planets, to his revendications. If you are wondering what of the other planets, their property was claimed in a separate action. It turns out the two were joined by the Court, in light of their « similar subject matter and cause of action ».

At trial, the Claimant thought it necessary to point out that he was not a lawyer, but rather a simple citizen. However, he had previous experience with the judicial system, having appeared in Court multiple times in matters relating to : the fact that he was duped with regard to a wild boar farm he owned (?); the fact that his brother sold the farm without his permission ; the fact that « the Queen » had tried to impose six psychologists on him. All in all, Mr. Langevin had instituted 51 separate proceedings against the government of Quebec.

In any event, the Superior Court dismissed Mr. Langevin’s declaratory motion for ownership of the planets, as being unfounded in law.

***

Most witty judgments are welcome with a smile by the legal community. But there is always the danger of overshadowing the justice a Court is supposed to render. A recent Ontario Court of Appeal decision on a murder charge may have gone too far when it began : « Early one morning in June 2006, Melvin Flores closed the book on his relationship with Cindy MacDonald. With a butcher knife left embedded in Cindy’s back”.

 

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Comments

  1. I have protested before the unkindness in exposing once more the unfortunate Brunis to ridicule. Quinn J. did what he should not have done and abused his power as a judge — I don’t know if the CJC received a complaint; I hope it did and did something about it. Those who thoughlessly re-expose his victims to more ridicule should reflect on how they would feel if they were the butt of this kind of mean, cheap judicial “humour”. If you wouldn’t like it done to you, don’t do it to someone else, particularly to two people utterly unable to protect themselves. It is bullying, pure and simple.

  2. A now deceased Ontario judge, noted for both his abilities, judgment, and biting sense of humour, remarked in an Advocates’ Society Journal article that judges are notorious for having very thick skins when the humour guns are pointed at them.

    (His too early death had nothing to do with the article.

  3. I cannot help but wonder this: if there were judges in Bruni v. Bruni who were savage in their application of the law (rather than awaiting one many years later who was savage in wording) would the case have gone on so long or turned out so badly?

    The great unspoken reality of the family courts is that parties act this badly (whether in tandem or not) because the courts do not sanction this behaviour and all too often reward it. Humans behave well where good behaviour is rewarded and bad behaviour punished … and they behave badly when the carrot and stick are reversed. The gelding of the law of contempt in Canada and the reluctance of the bench to put its anger where its power is just means that this sort of thing will continue, and worsen.

    Sorry, but where judges cheerfully joke that repeated death threats are “one dimensional problem-solving” such judges are a part of the problem, not the solution. [Gender also enters into it: I doubt that the judge --if only for reasons of optics -- have been so flip about repeated death threats to a wife.]

    Further, where judges are unable to distinguish between one party (here, Mr. Bruni) whose bad behaviour is restricted to breaches of Wheaton’s Law, and the other party (here, Mrs. Bruni) who disobeys orders, makes death threats, alienates the children from their father and terrorizes them with false threats (as in, if they spoke to their dad they’d be sent to jail), and isolates them from friends who don’t serve her purposes then what hope is there for a reasoned decision? The judge has taken the false-neutrality position so beloved of the American political media: no matter how badly one side acts, treat it as a joint dysfunction.

    Further, the judicial worship of the “status quo” in family matters has to end: here Quinn J takes the status quo as something not to be disturbedeven where the judge admits that the status quo is one of gross misconduct verging on mental illness.

    Sorry, but in a court system where judges hand out wins for near-psychotic behaviour (Mrs. Bruni came out of this with almost everything that she wanted, save for a loss of ongoing spousal support, despite years of appalling, unlawful and cruel behaviour, which the judge concedes was “evil”) they waive their right to complain about such behaviour … and certainly not write tart judgments as if somehow all of this sort of thing happens without judges playing any role in it happening.

    And one final word: where a judge calls one party’s conduct “evil” but declines to award costs against her one can legitimately question why one of the most handy disincentives to bad behaviour was not used. I strongly suspect that if word got around to the bar and litigants that parental alienation and disobedience of court orders led to penury then we’d see less of it.

  4. I was trying for subtlety and irony. I gather I missed.

    Judges and lawyers have no right to make fun of litigants. That’s an abuse of our position as officers of the court. It’s an abuse of power. Even where there’s a cross-examination which results in the litigant becoming a laughing stock, the purpose of the cross-examination wasn’t to make fun of the litigant. It’s to show there’s no merit to the litigants claim.

  5. Maryellen Symons

    The Family Law Rules require the parties to make “full and frank disclosure” of their financial information up front. Too often, they don’t. Judges let them get away with delayed, piecemeal disclosure that slows the case down (clogging the system) and costs the other spouse money and frustration. Having drafted too many motions to compel disclosure (I can almost do them in my sleep), I concur with David Sanders that “the courts do not sanction [bad] behaviour and all too often reward it”.

    I have mixed feelings about Justice Quinn. He absolutely should not have held Mr. Bruni and Ms. Bruni up to ridicule. On the other hand, my sense from reading his decisions is that when he presides over an early step in a case, he doesn’t let people get away with bad behaviour.

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