Recently retired Provincial Court Judge Ed de Walle. (Martha Wickett/Salmon Arm Observer)

Cases involving drinking and driving fatalities disturbing and unforgettable

Recently retired Provincial Court Judge Ed de Walle speaks of his time on the bench

Some cases and some people, you don’t ever forget.

When recently retired Provincial Court Judge Ed de Walle speaks about his 28 years as a judge, he describes them as rewarding, interesting, challenging. But he also makes note of the difficult memories.

Such as the criminal cases where innocent people have suffered and died, particularly because of drinking and driving.

“I’ve dealt with several in Salmon Arm. Those people I don’t think I’ll ever forget.”

Equally disturbing for him have been cases involving sexual assault and child pornography.

“We’re seeing those in Revelstoke, Salmon Arm and Vernon. Those cases are very troubling as well.”

And there’s Family Court, when young children are removed from their parents.

“When you read the reports and hear from social workers what kind of circumstances some children live in…” he remarks.

Or having to rule on where children should go when one parent wishes to move away with them.

“You’re making a decision on where a child is going to live – those weigh heavily on your mind.”

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During his career, de Walle says the number-one factor for people being in criminal court has been alcohol; “that’s a pretty solid pattern you see.”

When he moved to Salmon Arm from Terrace in 2007, he at first saw a lot of impaired driving cases because of the Trans-Canada Highway. Since the introduction of administrative penalties where people can be given 90-day driving prohibitions and have their vehicles impounded, the lack of ”endless legal arguments” has freed up a lot of court time.

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Other improvements he mentions are the introduction of videoconferencing, and significant changes that Civil and Family Law have undergone over the years, one being the introduction of family case conferences where issues can be resolved outside of the courtroom.

He notes that access to justice is an ongoing issue – finding sufficient court time for cases, as well as people showing up without legal representation, especially in Family Court.

Also, “we’re seeing far more people suffering from drug addiction and mental health issues. Again, it’s important for those folks to have legal representation.”

Asked about criticisms sometimes voiced about the criminal justice system being too lenient, he notes that judges are bound by the rule of law and there are ranges in sentencing they must consider. He said no two cases are the same and he believes if a member of the public was in a courtroom throughout a whole case, hearing everything a judge hears, they would be more likely to understand a particular ruling.

He remembers a case in Terrace years ago when a young woman pleaded guilty to 10 break and enter charges, “which is a serious crime.”

The offences had been committed several years earlier in Ontario, when she was addicted to cocaine. She and several other people had broken into houses to get goods to sell for drugs. Her life was a mess.

After several years she moved to B.C., completely turned her life around, had a job and a young child. She arranged to have all her charges moved to B.C.

De Walle did not impose jail time when he sentenced her. A letter to the editor soon appeared in the local newspaper.

“It’s a travesty, how can you break and enter 10 homes and not go to jail?” said the letter writer, recounts de Walle.

His view: “I think anyone sitting in the courtroom would understand completely.”

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De Walle emphasizes that criminal proceedings in Provincial Court are open to the public, plus judges’ written decisions are available to view on the Provincial Court website.

Being a judge is very busy, he says, some days having to deal with 30 to 40 files. Judges sit in court four days a week, with the fifth day in chambers, where they can make and write out their decisions or keep up with changes in the law.

How has 28 years as a judge changed him?

“I think it’s changed me in the sense that I have a much better appreciation for people that struggle in life and where they’ve come from and what journey they’ve been on. I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s in a fairly average middle class home… When you get involved in the criminal justice system in particular, it’s a huge eye opener.”

Although you don’t have much compassion for some people, he says – such as repeat offenders who’ve been involved in very violent crimes, “for most folks they struggle with mental health issues, drug addiction, alcohol addiction; you read the background reports – the home they’ve grown up in, struggling with education issues, not having the opportunities many people do. You get an appreciation for how they’ve ended up in the circumstance they’re in.”

Overall, he emphasizes, it’s been a very interesting and challenging career.

“I think I can say on behalf of all judges, we do the best we can do, day in and day out; we’re not perfect…

It’s not a job for the faint of heart.”


@SalmonArm
marthawickett@saobserver.net

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