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Women in Criminal Law

On Behalf of | Mar 8, 2017 | Women In Law

This past weekend, the Criminal Lawyer’s Association hosted a conference in Toronto for women defence counsel. The well-attended event provided female defence lawyers, and some students, lots of practical tips and food for thought of our role in the criminal justice system. The conference, now in its third year, grew out of a need for a space for female defence lawyers to talk about specific issues that affect women in private practice. In 2016, the CLA released a report with respect to the Retention of Women in Private Practice, which illustrated the various challenges facing women defence lawyers, from the financial logistics of taking time off to have a child, to the gendered difference of treatment by those in the court system. The conference was one way for defence lawyers to connect and talk about these challenges, while providing space for women to share and celebrate some of their successes.

The conference keynote was Renu Mandhane, the Chief Commissioner at the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Ms. Mandhane, who began her career practising criminal law in Toronto, spoke about the unique position of defence lawyers in shedding light on issues that might not otherwise be seen. She discussed her work on the use of segregation in Ontario’s jails, urging the audience to use the law creatively in order to come up with solutions to systemic issues and advance the Charter rights of our clients. (If you want to hear more from this inspiring woman, you can check out her interview on ‘The Docket‘ podcast from last December, where she touches on many of the same issues.)

The next panel was entitled “The Retention of Women in Criminal Law: The Challenge is Intersectional.” The premise of the panel was that the report of the CLA, while exploring issues related to sexism in the legal profession, did not deal with other forms of systemic discrimination, namely racism experienced by women of colour and Indigenous women. Panelists Emily Lam and Alison Macdonald spoke of the unique challenges that they face, and offered some strategies to dealing with the casual sexism and racism they encounter. You can also read Andrea Anderson’s article about the challenges faced by racialized women here. (Ms. Anderson was slated to speak but could not attend.)

The “Ethics Lightning Round” allowed panel of the Honourable Justice Melanie Dunn, Maija Martin and Jennifer Trehearne to discuss typical ethical dilemmas faced by all lawyers, such as a client who cannot remember an alleged incident, thorny issues of domestic violence cases and dealing with a client who is ‘shopping around’ when they already have a lawyer. The panel also delved into more specific situations, such as what obligations women lawyers have to disclose a pregnancy to a client.

The final session of the morning highlighted “Top 5 cases” by women. Cassandra DeMelo discussed the recently released decision of R v. Bingeley, where both the decision and the dissent were written by women on the Supreme Court of Canada. I had the opportunity to present a trial I had run last year, which involved the doctrine of deemed consent. My friend and colleague Neha Chugh discussed a case involving her client’s s. 10(b) rights where she had the client’s statement to police excluded from evidence. We were lucky to be joined by one of the most established and respected female defence lawyer, Marlys Edwardh, who spoke about the case of Trinity Western, which involves the covenant of a proposed law school in British Columbia to restrict all sexual activity outside of a heterosexual marriage. The case deals with the competing rights of religious freedom and equality rights, while balancing the public’s confidence in the legal systemic. Finally, Vanora Simpson discussed a case she had handled of a difficult client and difficult facts, urging women to be the best prepared and hardest working and to find a better story to the court than the Crown’s case.

The afternoon session began with two sole practitioners, Kim Vanderlee and Sarah Dover, presenting on representing diverse clients. Ms. Vanderlee spoke racial profiling, sharing some of her own experiences crossing the border, and discussing the case of R v. Brown from the Ontario Court of Appeal. She touched on dealing with anti-black racism in her cases, often as an unjustified reason the police use to stop a client and encourage audience-members to listen to the experiences of their clients. Meanwhile, Sarah Dover spoke about her experience as a “rez lawyer by day and white woman by night” and of the different competencies that are required to properly serve Indigenous communities. She identified the case of R. v. Gladue as a legal starting point to do things better and spoke candidly about the need to work through her own ‘issues’ about trauma and to let the process be about family, communities and her clients.

The final panel of the day was focused on business development. University of Toronto Sociology professor Ronit Dinovitzer presented some data about the disparities of earnings for men and women, while sole practitioners Ayesha Kumararatne and Rachel Grinberg offered guidance about building a practice. The advice centered on building relationships, finding niche markets and reaching out to senior counsel.

All in all, the conference made for an inspiring day full of thought-provoking speakers. Thank you again to the Criminal Lawyer’s Association Women’s Committee for putting it on.

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