After almost 30 years on the bench and 15 years of practicing as a lawyer in Penticton, Judge Gale Sinclair said no matter what criminal offence is being tried it all comes down to that it is also a person standing before him.
“I don’t see 98 per cent of people. I see the two per cent who are drug addicted, mentally ill, disadvantaged. I will pick up a pre-sentence report sometimes to read it and you just know from what you’re reading that this person didn’t have a chance right out of the womb. … But they’re all people, that’s what you’ve got to remember.”
Sinclair, who is verging on his 70th birthday is hanging up his robe in late March. Though not so influential in local politics, Sinclair has held sway in the courtrooms at 100 Main Street, where he sat as the sole judge from his assent to the position of judge in June 1988 to the early 2010s.
He spoke to reporters in his office at the courthouse Thursday morning about his experience on the bench and his expectations for retirement.
Despite concerns among the public about rising property crime, Sinclair said he has always felt safe in Penticton.
“We’re all victims of crime sometime. I came out a bout six months ago, out the back to get in my car, and there’s my tail light shattered and all the red plastic on the ground. Cost me 300 bucks,” he said. “I think some bozo was just walking up the alley, drunk or high or something, and gave it a boot.”
It is the crux of what most crime comes down to, said Sinclair who was largely into criminal and person injury law during his time as a lawyer.
“I used to say that if there wasn’t booze I wouldn’t have a job. Laterally it’s been if there weren’t those damn hard drugs I wouldn’t have a job,” he said.
Sinclair said he believes the job is misunderstood by most, adding the heavy presence of the tough-on-crime U.S. justice system in media can cloud people’s perception of the Canadian system and how it works. If he doesn’t properly sentence someone, he said there are judges above him who can correct his judgement if a Crown appeals.
“I’m not going to pander to the public opinion about that stuff. I’m going to do it right. They may not think it’s right. Often times they don’t,” he said.
“I consider myself very lucky that I have been here as long as I have, because I know the players. I know who the badasses are and who are people who are, for whatever reason, just doing stuff, and you take that into account, too. I had grandpa as a client, then I’ve had son and grandson in court in many families.”
It is a job that he said has evolved over the years.
“It’s a different job today than it was 30 years ago. The charter was in its infancy, then, and for the first few years you didn’t see a lot of that stuff. Now that’s all you see, of course.”
Sinclair gave the example of an impaired driving case, which previously would take just an hour or so, but with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and precedents set by higher judges, those that aren’t dealt entirely roadside can take some time.
“It’s a couple of days, right? Because they’re plumbing the depths of that charter, let me tell you,” he said. “I think the Crown probably still gets its 85-per-cent convictions, but it’s tougher for them.”
While he said he doesn’t read comments on social media, he said does hear about the comments online from his wife and he does read the letters to the editor.
“Water off a duck’s back,” he said of negative comments that call for harsher judgements. “How many thousand cases have I done? I couldn’t begin to count. If I went home and worried about them, I’d be in the loonie bin. I do my best at the time and walk away from it.”
Sinclair said for retirement, he plans on doing some golfing and reading — a fan of John Grisham, he said — as well as travel, but said he didn’t have any major plans for his retirement.
“I’m going to miss being part of something, because on the 30th day of March, I’m just going to be another old fart.”