In family court, a judge turns to ridicule to defuse the rage


JUSTICE REPORTER— From Friday's Globe and Mail

Faced with warring ex-spouses besieging one another with threats and verbal abuse and dragging their children into it too, Ontario Superior Judge Joseph Quinn resorted to the only tool he had left – a highly unusual verbal roasting.

“Paging Dr. Freud, paging Dr. Freud,” Judge Quinn began a recent judgment that has gone viral in the family-law community. “Here, a husband and wife have been marinating in a mutual hatred so intense as to surely amount to a personality disorder requiring treatment. The source of difficulties is hatred: a hardened, harmful, high-octane hatred.”

Judge Quinn’s 31-page decision boils over with the frustrations of a family-law judge who is called upon time and again to referee bouts between couples who were once in love. He even takes a shot at family law itself, saying that spousal support is “the roulette of family law – blindfolds, darts and Ouija boards being optional.”

And he anticipates criticism of his tone: “The parties repeatedly have shown they are immune to reason. Consequently, in my decision, I have tried ridicule as a last resort.”

In a novel twist, Judge Quinn granted the wife, Catherine, sole custody of the feuding couple’s 13-year-old daughter. However, he ordered Larry to pay Catherine just a dollar a month in spousal support.

Judge Quinn expressed disgust with the way Catherine has induced her daughter to detest her father. “The harm is irreparable,” he said. “Generally, it is unwise to place an immature 13-year-old in charge of her life. Here, however, Catherine and [her current partner] have engineered an alienation that is so complete as to leave the court with no feasible option.”

Toronto lawyer Phil Epstein, an expert in family law, describes Judge Quinn as a respected jurist who was justified in ridiculing the couple. “I’m sure there will be some who criticize Justice Quinn for this,” he said. “But others will say that sometimes you have to step back and laugh at the foibles of mankind.”

Family law judges spent their time dealing with inflamed litigants whose stories are “highly conflicting and replete with inappropriate behaviour and misconduct,” Mr. Epstein said. “They use the courtroom as a forum for all the wrongs that have been done to them in their marriage. It is not surprising that some judges try to find a better way to help resolve their problems.”

Alternating caustic gibes with amusing observations, Judge Quinn portrayed Catherine – a 36-year-old school caretaker – and Larry, a labourer, as vile, foul-mouthed creatures who had burned through an enormous amount of police and court time waging their futile blitzkrieg.

He said that they cannot attend their son’s ball hockey games without erupting into loud conflict, and that Catherine once tried to run over Larry with a van. “This is always a telltale sign that a husband and wife are drifting apart,” Judge Quinn remarked dryly.

On three occasions, a niece of Catherine’s who is engaged to a Hells Angels biker called Larry to warn him that he would be shot dead, Judge Quinn said. “On Oct. 18, 2007, a nautical theme was added,” he remarked. “According to Larry, ‘Catherine’s sister-in-law yelled out her window that I was going to be floating in the canal dead.’”

Judge Quinn said that Larry, 38, possesses “a near-empty parenting tool box,” and was fond of venting his anger by sending Catherine insulting text messages and giving her ‘the finger’ as he drove by her home. “A finger is worth a thousand words and therefore, is particularly useful should one have a vocabulary of less than a thousand words,” Judge Quinn added.

Catherine gave her children “advanced animosity-tutoring,” and repeatedly denied Larry access to them, Judge Quinn said. He said that on one occasion, Larry and his daughter were thrown out of a McDonald’s restaurant because she was yelling that he was ‘a deadbeat.’

“This is language she would have learned from Catherine,” Judge Quinn noted. “They are the result of persistent, behind-the-scenes brainwashing by Catherine.”

He said that Catherine also warned the children several times that if they attempted to telephone their father, they would go to jail. She also once text messaged her daughter while she was on an access visit with Larry to ask: “Is dickhead there?”

Judge Quinn said that he foolishly called a four-month hiatus during the trial in the hope that Larry and Catherine could benefit from mediation. “It is touching how a trial judge can retain his naivety even after 15 years on the bench,” he said.