Courtroom No. 7 at provincial court in St. John’s is kind of like a hospital emergency department.
Called to the bar in 1992, Jane Fitzpatrick is the Legal Aid duty counsel in provincial court’s largest courtroom. — Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram
In a bustle of activity where crisis and emotion can often be overwhelming, there’s one person who handles the chaos.
Jane Fitzpatrick is the Legal Aid duty counsel in provincial court’s largest courtroom, which is the first stop in the court system for people in trouble with the law.
It’s a tough job getting through dozens of cases, bail hearings and fresh arrests every day, but Fitzpatrick does it well, displaying professionalism and compassion.
“I love being duty counsel for No. 7,” said Fitzpatrick, who sought out the job and has had it for more than two years.
“I really enjoy dealing with the public and I think it’s a valuable service.”
Fitzpatrick — who graduated from Dalhousie University Law School in 1991 and was called to the bar in this province in 1992 — always knew she wanted to be a lawyer.
“I could never imagine myself in any other field,” she said.
Once she was out of law school, it didn’t take her long to realize that criminal law was what suited her.
She articled at the firm French, Brown and Dodd and landed her first job with the Noonan, Oakley and Orr in St. John’s.
In the 1990s, Fitzpatrick worked for five years in Labrador — two as a Crown prosecutor and the rest as a Legal Aid lawyer before returning home to St. John’s in 1999.
She’s been with Legal Aid ever since.
“I knew I didn’t want to go back to private practice,” said Fitzpatrick, who served a term as executive director for the Human Rights Commission in 2007-08.
“If you really have an interest in criminal law, you really either have to work for the Crown or Legal Aid. It’s that simple.”
But in first-appearance court, it isn’t always easy facing people who are struggling with serious personal issues.
“The biggest challenge with people coming off the street is that many are addicts and often are still under the influence of drugs or alcohol when they come to court,” she said.
“Some are also every emotional, or are a combination of those, and/or have a mental illness.
“You’ll see people who aren’t necessarily on drugs, but who are in the middle of some kind of a breakdown or crisis in their lives.
“Legitimately or not, they sometimes don’t know why they’re in there or can’t accept that they’re in there.”
Some can also be violent, verbally abusive and uncontrollable. It’s up to Fitzpatrick to try and calm them before they face a judge.
“I have to be able to communicate effectively with each one, and sometimes that’s very, very challenging,” said Fitzpatrick, who often recommends psychiatric evaluations at the Waterford Hospital to first determine if the person is mentally fit to be in court.
“You have to explain the process to them and ensure they understand.”
Often, she said, people first coming to court want to tell their life story and explain what happened in the incident that led to their arrest.
But Fitzpatrick says their detailed defence must be put on the back burner.
“I can’t change the fact they’re charged. They’re presumed innocent,” she said.
“But I tell them it’s my job to try and get them out of jail and unless you’re going to work with me, that may not happen. It’s important, at this phase, to get them focused on that, and you have to do that without getting them really mad at you because they’re not all rational.”
Fitzpatrick said it’s important to show sensitivity, as many people end up in court because of their troubled past.
“There are two sides to every story. You have to realize these people are sometimes victims themselves, whether it’s sexual abuse or neglect,” she said.
“You have to be sensitive to that. You have to be the person to be there for them.”
Fitzpatrick wishes she could be there for a long time, but realizes she can’t, as Legal Aid eventually rotates lawyers in first-appearance court.
But she said no matter which courtroom she’s in, she’s just glad to be able to go home every day to her husband and two children.
That’s what gives her the most fulfillment in life.
What is your full name?
Jane Marie Fitzpatrick
Where and when were you born?
Born in St. John’s in September. I’d rather not say the year.
Where is your home today?
St. John’s, in a great neighbourhood in the Pius X and Churchill Square area.
What was your favourite year?
I really have two favourite years. They were 2000 and 2002, when my sons were born. I don’t think my husband will mind that I didn’t say the year that I married him. It was a good year, too.
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What are five CDs in your music collection?
I love all kinds of music — traditional Irish and Newfoundland music, pop, rock (especially the ’80s), classical, etc. In my car, I currently have an Elvis Christmas CD, Bruce Springsteen, ABBA, Queen and Great Big Sea CDs.
Do you have a favourite movie?
I love movies and have many favourites, so it is hard for me to pick one. Some of the old musicals, like “The Sound of Music,” are favourites. “Fried Green Tomatoes” is also a favourite.
Where is your favourite vacation spot?
I love London, England. There is so much history, so much to see and do. It’s like having the entire world at your fingertips.
What are your best and worst qualities?
I am tenacious. So it is both a good and sometimes bad quality. Not giving up has served me well, but at times, situations occur when you need to let go and move on. I wish it was easier to move on.
What is your personal motto?
“There but for the grace of God go I.” I have been extremely fortunate in my professional and personal life and I try to do what I can to help others who have not been as fortunate.
Who is the one person living or deceased you would love to have lunch with?
All of my grandparents. Some either were deceased before I was born or died shortly after. I would love the opportunity to meet them and learn about their lives.
What do you remember most about your childhood?
I have a large extended family with lots of cousins. I enjoyed getting together with them. Our family’s road trip to New Jersey one summer was especially memorable. The gas shortage and the lack of any electronic navigation made for some interesting detours.
What is the most difficult thing you have ever done?
Without a doubt, having children. That birthing video in the prenatal class frightened the living daylights out of me. However, having children has also been the most rewarding and best thing I have ever done.
What is your biggest fear?
Harm coming to one of my children. We live in a complicated and sometimes nasty world and they will be exposed to all kinds of temptations that might put them at risk. I hope to provide them with skills to make the right choices if and when the time comes.
Also, that the Toronto Maple Leafs will win the Stanley Cup before my Montreal Canadiens win it again.
What would you do if you won the lottery?
I would give money to charitable groups that provide support to people in need. Family members would get a share and I would also like to put some aside so I can travel extensively with my family.
Who would you most like to be stuck in an elevator with?
An elevator repairman. I am sure you have had that answer before.
If I am stuck, I would like to be entertained. Chris Angel, a great modern magician, would fit the bill.
What motivates you?
Life’s short. So I try to get the most out of every day and I have a desire to improve to be a better person.
What is your most treasured possession?
Old photos of family and friends are very important to me and irreplaceable. I should probably look at getting duplicates and putting them in a safe place.
What is your favourite food?
I love the flavours of Asian foods. So Thai and Vietnamese are high on my list of favourite foods.
What is your greatest regret?
That when I was a young, single university student I didn’t take some time off to travel. I think seeing the world and its different cultures at a young age would have been a great experience. I hope my children have the opportunity.
What do you still want to accomplish?
Call me a dreamer, given where we live, I do want to learn how to surf.