The Robin Sharpe case, the Walkerton water scandal, the church-run residential homes scandal, the tobacco lawsuits, the Columbine shootings…. all, and many others, in their aftermaths, are linked by one dominant thread: after the initial catastrophe, the lawyers quickly stepped in…. to ensure that a multitude of new catastrophes will follow.
Bankruptcy, despair, and personal destruction aren’t as dramatic as school bombings or water poisoning, so they don’t get as much extensive coverage in the media. But they are equally real and sometimes more disastrous for people than the initial misfortunes that first brought the litigants to the courthouse.
The Survivors of “Survivor”, the tv show, did well to leave the island alive– but they foolishly voted a lawyer, Stacey Stillman, off the island in the third round. She’s now suing two of the contestants and the executive producer. Did she not agree to the basic rules of the game when she signed on? Sure, but no person should be forced to honor an agreement that relates somehow to his or her personal integrity.
I have to take you back on a brief side-trip to Roald Dahl’s childhood. Roald Dahl, whose father died when he was very young, was shipped off to a British residential school by his mother. At this residential school, misbehavior– real or imagined– was punished with the rod. The miscreant was ordered to drop his pants and bend over and then was thwacked repeatedly with a wooden stick until he was bruised or bleeding. The flogging was performed by upper-class boys or the head-master– the scions of British upper-class snobbery, the flower of all that was civilized in the Western World, in their own estimation. The same people who looked down upon the native peoples of Africa as “savages”.
I have never heard of any of these men being sued, years after the fact, by any of their students, least of all Roald Dahl. Why not? Isn’t this abuse? Roald Dahl’s mother, a lovely woman by all accounts, certainly didn’t approve. Roald Dahl didn’t approve. Who gave them the right to do this? In a court of law, would any reasonable person believe– today– that this kind of discipline is justifiable?
Do they still do this? Seems impossible, don’t you think? Certainly, no teacher of any school, private or not, in North America, could get away such singular brutality today. Or could they?
But a 13-year-old girl in a high school in Toronto can ruin a teacher’s life by asserting that he spoke the word “breast” in front of her and nudged her once as he passed her desk and looked at her in a “lewd and inappropriate way”. His name appears in the papers. He is suspended from his job. He is shunned by his friends and colleagues. His wife leaves him. It is later found that the girl was lying– but no matter. The man must spend the rest of his life under a cloud of suspicion that is named “was once charged with sexual abuse”.
And what shall we do with the girl? Not a blessed thing. A verbal warning, perhaps. I assume that might have been done, but the official record is that nothing was done. Our society, down on it’s hands and knees examining every crack in the floor for the slightest sign of a pin of sexual harassment, stands aside while the elephant of personal destruction does headstands on the ottoman.
A woman gets drunk at an office party. Her employers offer to pay for a taxi to take her home. They offer to call her husband. She turns them down, heads off in a car and goes drinking at another bar somewhere. Then she gets into the car again and smashes into a pickup truck. She suffers permanent brain damage and can no longer work. A court awards her $300,000 from the employer– the same employer that tried to stop her from driving home by herself– on the reasoning– if you could call it that– that they were one-fourth responsible for her accident. But if she is 3/4 responsible, then she owes herself $900,000, money which she does not have. It appears that the logic of the law, in this case, is that he who has deep pockets will pay, one way or the other.
And Roald Dahl’s teachers– one of them went on to be the man who put the crown on the head of Queen Elizabeth– a man who made a young boy expose his buttocks so he could whack him so hard with a birch stick that the boy couldn’t sit down without pain for weeks– Roald Dahl’s teachers…. probably thrive in doddering retirements in the countryside of England, proud of their contributions to civilization.
Back to the law– the problem is, I don’t think our society really does think the law makes sense anymore. Most people seem to find many of these ruling bizarre. Not all of them really are bizarre. The newspapers do like to exaggerate. But we do seem to have completely lost sight of the purpose of the law– to provide the rules for justice and fairness– because the law has become a tool in the hands of schemers to extract wealth from vulnerable parties. It’s become a game that consists completely of technicalities. The schemers are not necessarily the litigants– they are the lawyers, who usually end up with most of the settlement anyway. It is indeed not unusual for the lawyers to end up with all of the settlement, or even more than the settlement, as in the tobacco cases in the U.S. [A court later lowered the fees.]
In the case of Walkerton, the law should have provided that the injured parties received compensation for pain, suffering, and inconvenience caused by the mismanagement of the water purification system. Instead, every party, regardless of injury, is going to receive $2,000. And the six lawyers who partnered in the class action suit will receive $5 million.
What? How can this possibly make sense? How can the only party not injured by the actions of the Walkerton municipal water utility end up with more money than any of the injured parties?
The situation was thus: the genuinely injured parties stood to gain much more than $2,000 each, since any right-minded jury would award the family of one of the dead or seriously sick children much, much more than that. But this would require years of litigation, expert witnesses, medical records, motions and counter-motions, suspensions and delays, and so on, all of it fought with the utmost vigor by the party with deepest pockets, the province (and the province’s insurance companies).
The province was not necessarily primarily responsible for the water disaster: the town of Walkerton was. But the province has some indirect responsibility– and deep pockets.
It doesn’t make sense. The people of Walkerton are still free to demand more than $2,000, by proving hardship above the average, I suppose, to an arbitrator appointed by a judge. I suppose this will result in smaller, more reasonable settlements, and appears to cut the lawyers out of the equation. It is quite possible that the conduct of the lawyers in this case was quite reasonable. Except for the $5 million.
What has really happened is this: the lawyers, taking advantage of their position as gate-keepers of the legal system, were empowered to go into the treasury together (both sides, holding hands and singing “tra-la-la-la”) and decide how much money should be given out to the residents of Walkerton, and, while they were there, with no one other than fellow lawyers to look on, they stuffed their own pockets full. These lawyers purportedly represent the two adversaries in our legal system. But the real adversaries in our legal system are the clients and the lawyers. The lawyers have figured out a way to do their business that guarantees benefits to themselves regardless of who wins the actual case.
“Here, you take some.”
“But do you have enough?”
“Well, I could take a little more, perhaps…”
“Oh, but only if you do.”
“Well, if you insist….”
As in most cases, you have lawyers for one side sitting down with lawyers for the other side. And they say to each other– your clients are slimy bastards who committed horrible acts that resulted in incalculable pain and misery for my clients and you will have to pay enormous sums of money to them because even though money can’t buy love, it is necessary to make a symbolic gesture of culpability. But first, lets take care of each other. We’ll tell our client that they are getting piles of money and that our services are free. We’ll make it clear, in devious, subtle ways, that if they don’t accept the agreement we recommend to them, they’ll be in court for decades and never get a cent after the legal bills. In return, you get to charge your client enormous sums for pretending to have saved them millions of dollars by negotiating the lesser of two evils in return for which they pay our outrageous legal fees as well as yours.
But won’t your clients say, shouldn’t all those millions going into legal fees be going to us? Why are you making it look like it doesn’t come out of our settlement by saying that you are getting paid directly by the defendant, instead of billing us? Why do you guys get a percentage anyway, instead of a decent fixed rate for the number of hours you actually worked?
Ha ha ha ha! Okay? Done.
The law has become so arcane and complex that lawyers function like priests, interpreting the will of an omnipotent but unknowable God who periodically lashes down from his mountain top with random acts of wanton destruction and misalignment.
We live in a democracy. You would think that our legal system represents the will of the people, popularly expressed. But the lawyers have succeeded in establishing an exclusive cooperative monopoly on access to “justice”.
The government should do three things.
1. Review all of the laws and get rid of the ones that obsolete, irrelevant, or more than 30 years old, unless a really compelling case can be made for keeping it. (I expect that “homicide” should stay on the books.)
2. All the retained laws must be simplified and rewritten so that an average Grade 6 student can clearly understand them.
3. Lawyers fees should be regulated. I don’t mind so much if they are paid a decent wage, but “decent wage” should be defined as “less than a million dollars” and “not a percentage of the settlement they negotiated with other lawyers”.
Lawyers don’t have to dig holes in the ground in the winter or handle garbage or toxic sludge. They don’t have to change diapers or clean toilets. Why should they make more than $30 an hour?