Popular defence lawyer benched

By Sue Yanagisawa
Local News - Monday,

October 04, 2004

Kingston Whig Standard

One courtroom phone call changed Geoff Griffin’s life.

The Napanee lawyer was standing in a Kingston courtroom, about to pitch bail for a client, when he was alerted to a phone call from the Attorney General’s office.

It was for Griffin, and it was


The call brought proceedings to a halt and turned his self-image inside out.

An Order in Council had just gone through, he was informed: He’d been appointed a judge of the Ontario Court of Justice and from that moment on could no longer represent his clients. The bail hearing was over.

Since that day – Aug. 25 – Griffin has been winding up his law practice and looking forward and back at the same time.

Snugged in his small Napanee law office in a modest storefront next to the post office, surrounded by the tools of the last 20 years of his career – law books, plastic file boxes full of case files and precarious stacks of brightly coloured file folders overflowing the wood cabinets behind his desk and heaped onto the big wood table that dominates one half of the room – he admits, “It’s just starting to sink in.”

Griffin applied for the much coveted Napanee-Picton judgeship that came open in mid-July with the retirement of Mr. Justice J. Peter Coulson.

“I really did not expect this,” he said. “It was a complete and utter surprise.”

People have asked him why he applied, if that’s true.

It’s like buying a lottery ticket, he answers: There has to be a chance of winning or no one would play.

“You buy a ticket,” he said. “You don’t expect to win the trip to Cancun.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he adds. “I want the job.”

Griffin says he just didn’t expect to be chosen.

“There were some very strong candidates, [including] some who are my friends,” he adds.

As much as he’s looking forward to being a judge, he’s going to miss being a lawyer.

“Oh yeah,” he says with feeling. “The first two days [after receiving the news] it felt like a death had happened. You define yourself as a certain person, and you’re not that [person] anymore.”

“For years, except for Christmas, I went to court – I went to courts,” he corrects with a short chuckle, recalling his daily sprints between court houses and communities.

Born in Beaconsfield, at the west end of Montreal Island, Griffin first arrived in this area as a student at Queen’s University. At Queen’s, Griffin was heavily involved in Queen’s Legal Aid. He articled in Toronto, but upon learning of an opening for a lawyer in Napanee, he went for it, setting up shop in 1984, the same year he was called to the bar.

“When I first got here I wanted to do some work with the area institutions,” he says, adding “I was doing a litigation practice.”

Until about 10 years ago he did a fair amount of family law and for many years, until the early 1990s, he was on the Official Guardians Panel, which looks after the legal interests of children.

He’s also been a member of the Unified Family Court Committee and Ontario Court of Justice Committee in Napanee sat on the board of directors of the Lennox and Addington Addiction Services and the Lennox and Addington County General Hospital Foundation until his appointment as a member of the Criminal Lawyers Association.

His practice evolved so that in the end, he calculates, 90 per cent of it was criminal. His case load, which had him apportioning his time between two court levels and four communities on a steady basis, sometimes required judges, justices of the peace, Crowns and court staff to do some serious case juggling to accommodate him – a fact he appreciates keenly.

“These people went out of their way to help me, to accommodate me,” and he says he feels “immense gratitude” to all of them.

Griffin doesn’t think the general public realizes “how hard working and dedicated the court staffs are at all the courts” in this area.

He’s already cultivated an unusually good rapport with the judges he now joins.

A man who says he’s habitually put in 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. days – and thrived on it – has been forced to surrender his routine cold-turkey. “The first few days was like you … lost a limb.”

Irrepressible by nature, he doesn’t dwell on the dark moments. He’s spent a lot of time on the phone during his mandatory semi-confinement, receiving congratulations and good wishes from neighbours, colleagues, peers, clients – even the mother of a client who routinely presses fresh baked goods on him.

He was particularly impressed with a call he got from a former client doing time for bank robbery in Kingston Penitentiary. He describes, with head-shaking admiration, how the call came less than 24 hours after he’d received the news himself and a day before it was made public. He wonders how the convicts knew so fast.

“They probably know what we’re saying right now,” he quips.

Now 47, Griffin anticipates that his new job will give him more time with his family. He’s married with four children, the eldest an almost-15-year-old son and the youngest a three-year-old daughter. A large portion of one wall of his office is covered with kid’s artwork, displayed at eye level next to his desk.

“I’ll be home for evening meals for a change,” he says, confessing that in the years spent building his practice and subsequently maintaining it, his “role as a father was compromised. So maybe I’ll be able to pick up some lost time there.”

On the other hand, learning people’s stories is something that greatly engages Griffin and he’s anticipating that side of his nature will sometimes be frustrated as a judge.

He has a reputation for taking more than the average interest in his clients. His work has given him an education, he says, through the discovery of what’s interesting, amusing and sometimes disheartening in the ways people live. “I’ll miss the wide range of the human condition that I got to coax out of people every day.”

Griffin has a reputation for thinking quickly on his feet, as well as for his playfulness and his puckish asides.

Several months ago a client nearly derailed a good sentencing deal on multiple charges by trying to suggest to the judge that the gram of speed police had discovered was actually Epsom Salts.

Griffin moved in to stop him mid-sentence and, after conferring quickly and quietly with the man in the prisoner’s dock, he announced that his client wanted to amend his claim by conceding that his Epsom Salts could have been contaminated with methamphetamine.

On another occasion when the lawyers’ seating had run out in a packed Superior Court of Justice courtroom, Griffin slipped the latch on the prisoner’s dock and sat down. He was chatting and still in the box when Justice Helen MacLeod came through the door from the hall and he immediately stood up.

Casting a no-nonsense look around the room, she caught sight of him there and immediately laughed. She was still grinning as she took her seat and told him with mock-seriousness: “You look good in there, Mr. Griffin.”

“I’ll certainly miss the playfulness I was able to get away with,” Griffin says, noting that some of that conduct would be “wholly inappropriate for a judge.”

He’s also nervous about “trying to get the right balance between the rehabilitation and the punishment,” a fear his predecessor believes is unfounded. Griffin says “my job, up to now, has been to take the sting out.”

Griffin says he’s had good role models in Justice Coulson and retired Justice P.E.D. Baker.

What he aspires to, he says, is to be, “if there is such a thing, a synthesis of Judge Baker and Judge Coulson.”

He’d like to combine Baker’s humour and efficiency on the bench with the plain spoken gems of wisdom and guidance Coulson delivers to the accused along with his verdict or sentence.

“I can’t see myself becoming overly legalistic,” Griffin says. “Procedure’s important, but I don’t want it to become too important.”

Griffin is expected to sit with another judge for on-the-job training, called shadowing. He’s scheduled to be sworn in today.

“I think the immediate placement of myself here [in Napanee] will be problematic,” just because of the number of cases he was handling that will still be on the lists.

He anticipates a meeting in the near future with other judges to work out the wrinkles. In the meantime, he could switch places with Justice Stephen Hunter for a while. “I could certainly go to Belleville [to sit] or Bancroft,” he says.

He’s hoping to be presiding in his own courts in Napanee and Picton around February.

“I have clients I’ve worked for for years,” he says. “On a contested matter, obviously I would have a great deal of difficulty [hearing the case].”

On uncontested matters, he believes he could probably hear cases involving former clients, if there are no objections from the lawyers involved. He’s currently studying all the case law he can find.

And as time passes the problem will become less acute.

“This is not something new to this area,” he observes, noting that his predecessor, Justice Coulson, was Crown attorney in the very court he stepped

into as a judge and Mr. Justice Megginson and retired Justice P.E.D. Baker were both Kingston defence lawyers before being appointed judges here.