“Justice is sweet and musical; but injustice is harsh and discordant.”
— Henry David Thoreau
If you plead guilty to a charge, shouldn’t you have to appear in court to acknowledge your responsibility and — hopefully — remorse for the wrongdoing?
I say yes.
The justice system’s answer is, not always.
In provincial court this week, a prominent St. John’s real estate agent was found guilty of income tax evasion and ordered to pay back more than $50,000 to the government.
We covered the story in The Telegram, but we could not publish his photograph. Why? Because he wasn’t in court to hear his punishment. Instead, he sent his lawyer along.
Anyone who saw or heard the story knows who he is, but that’s not really the point.
The larger issue is why someone who has admitted to being guilty would not have to show their face and say so in person.
And the real estate agent’s case is hardly an isolated one.
In 2010 in provincial court in
St. John’s, three companies owned by the same person were fined more than $1 million for tax evasion — for claiming things like home renovations and jewelry as legitimate business expenses when they clearly were not.
More than $1 million — that’s not small change.
The companies pleaded guilty to six counts; all charges against the owner of the businesses were dropped in a plea bargain; and not one company representative had to appear in court to hear the judge’s decision. Instead, a lawyer for the company acted as stand-in.
The matter had been winding its way through court for over a year. In the end, the judge handed down a hefty fine, and the lawyers clicked their briefcases shut and walked away.
To my mind, that’s far too easy.
It would be like me dining at a restaurant and leaving without paying, and when the restaurant found out and called to object, responding by saying, “OK, you got me. Just send me the bill.”
Only these real-life cases are on a much larger scale.
And these are just two of many examples in this province where a person or entity pleaded guilty by way of a middleman.
So, some drug-addled kid goes into a convenience store with a bread knife, comes out with a hundred dollars and gets caught, and has to go through the “perp walk” where media cameras could be waiting. That’s because robbery is considered an indictable offence.
Yet you swindle your own government of thousands of dollars in income tax — a federal charge — and the system may be so eager to have the money repaid that the accused can plead guilty and have the matter treated as a summary conviction, a lesser offence (depending on the nature of the case), without having to appear to hear their fate in person.
Pay the fine, do no time, skip the court appearance.
To me, that flies in the face of justice. And not every legal expert agrees that it should be allowed.
Paul B. Schabas is a partner in one of Canada’s most prestigious business law firms, Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP in Toronto. White collar crime and tax matters are among his specialties.
“I would think a judge would not be happy about the failure of the individual to attend in court and publicly accept responsibility,” he told me via email this week.
“Failing to appear personally suggests the plea is not sincere, or that the accused does not feel remorse, which would be shown by a personal appearance and acceptance of responsibility.”
The whole notion of justice, I always thought, involved taking responsibility for your actions. Showing up. Stepping up. Being present. We are people, not just names and numbers on court dockets, and when we make mistakes that are contrary to the law, we must take ownership of them.
Allowing people to give court a pass undermines the justice system. It’s one reason why some people feel that justice is two-tiered, that the well-heeled and the well-connected get an easier ride.
Some justice systems beyond the mainstream are more democratic, and the offender’s role in the process is mandatory, not optional. In restorative justice, for example, the offender and victim come face to face, and both play a role in reaching some sort of resolution.
The RCMP describes the process this way: “The focus in restorative justice is on offender accountability, problem solving, and creating an equal voice for offenders and victims.”
There’s no accountability when the offender doesn’t have to be directly involved in the process.
You aren’t truly accepting your guilt if you avoid showing up to hear your punishment.
You can’t absent yourself from justice, and you can’t express remorse to the courts via a third party.
“Not only must justice be done; it must also be seen to be done,” the maxim goes.
Can’t judges order guilty parties to appear before the court?
Otherwise, justice isn’t seen to be done at all.
Pam Frampton is a columnist and
The Telegram’s associate managing editor. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.