Fear Factor

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It almost seemed like overkill: on Thursday, an association representing the province’s Crown attorneys wanted to write a letter to the editor responding to the provincial government’s decision to cut the number of provincial Crowns and the effects of cutting support staff as well.

The letter from the Newfoundland and Labrador Crown Attorneys’ Association was thoughtful, careful and recognized the need to cut costs: “The NLCAA appreciates that the government has a duty to be fiscally responsible.” It was a polite letter, spelling out the risks of cutbacks in an already-busy court system.

The association said it had wanted to address the issues in private meetings with the government, but that the issue had exploded publicly and the NLCAA executive felt they had to respond in a public forum as well.

Then came the curious part: the letter came from the NLCAA executive and the group asked that it not be signed by an individual but by the group as a whole.

Why? This is the serious part: the lawyers were concerned that there would be retribution by the government against anyone whose name was directly attached to the document.

Crown attorneys, generally, are educated people who understand the role of free speech in a democracy. It seemed strange that, as a group, they would fear that exercising free speech could lead to direct personal retribution by the government.

To put it another way, if there was any group that shouldn’t feel the chill about writing about their view of a very public situation in the province’s courts, this would be it. The letter was not a polemic, it was not offensive and it added to the public debate of a very public issue, with detailed information from individuals keenly and directly involved in the day-to-day operations that are being affected by cutbacks.

But they were afraid.

Turns out, they were also right.

Because late in the day on Thursday, that fear became very real. That’s when a legal aid lawyer who spoke to the CBC about the effects cutbacks would have on the justice system was suspended by the Newfoundland and Labrador Legal Aid Commission. It’s not clear how long Ray Kuszelewski — the area director for legal aid in Gander — will be off the job. It’s also not clear why someone whose job it is to defend the rights of those who face the legal system empty-handed should now have to write a letter of apology for speaking up about his concerns for precisely those people.

What is clear is the message being sent. The government is very publicly denouncing any concerns about cuts in the Justice Department — on Thursday, two cabinet ministers issued a joint government news release headlined “Ministers clarify misinformation on budget impacts for justice,” a release that patently failed to identify even a single piece of “misinformation.” And it seems ready to denounce and discipline staff members who speak out as well.

The NLCAA pointed out that the cutbacks in the Justice Department take staffing back to a level that a public inquiry deemed to be insufficient. Will Justice Minister Darin King now be suspending all of the Crown attorneys for putting such heresy in the newspaper? Stay tuned.

Organizations: Newfoundland and Labrador Crown Attorneys, Justice Department, CBC Newfoundland and Labrador Legal Aid Commission

Geographic location: Gander

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  • Wondering
    April 08, 2013 - 14:58

    Retribution against anyone who speaks out,... Does this promote free speech and is in line with democratic principles? Does this approach promote the freedoms our soldiers risk their lives to defend? Or is retribution and restriction of freedom of expression the way of dictators? Pretty bad when lawyers must group together to avoid retribution. Is this an acknowledgement that our Charter of Rights is not a good protection for them? Freedom of expression... isn't that a legal right? Where is the Rule of Law? Or is that a crock?

  • EDfromRED
    April 06, 2013 - 17:42

    The PC's say they consulted the experts for input and advice concerning budget cuts, but a legal aid expert gives his advice on how the cuts are a disaster for the Justice system and is suspended! What the PC's should say, is that they want experts who will say what they want them to say. How can anyone have respect for the law and this government if someone who uses free speech gets punished? The Premier, and other government officials, will act all solemn on Remembrance Day, extolling the sacrifices made for our rights and freedoms --while taking those same rights away the next day! What a bunch of petty dictators!

  • Herb Morrison
    April 06, 2013 - 10:39

    I was astounded to read the following comment :“To put it another way, if there was any group that shouldn’t feel the chill about writing about their view of a very public situation in the province’s courts, this would be it.” The writer of this particular opinion piece seems to forget that, before a person is a Lawyer, they are a human beings. Consequently, this particular group of human beings cannot be faulted if they seek individual anonymity, because they feel a chill when facedwith the possibility of losing .their job, for having chosen to be part of a group speaking publically on a controversial issue. The lawyers who make up this group have a legitimate reason for seeking anonymity, at least in my opinion.. Furthermore, why should there be such an outcry when a group who appears to have a legitimate reason for seeking anonymity, chooses to exercise that right, given the fact that there is little or no public reaction when numerous contributors to this and other websites exercise their right to anonymity when they post an article or comment which might be controversial in nature. Could it be that the Governmen’s apparent lack of compassion, which it has demonstrated with the recent round of both job cuts and cuts to much needed Programs, is contagious / Lets hope not.

  • Corporate Psycho
    April 06, 2013 - 10:33

    Anyone one remember King doing something similar when he was Ed Minister? Very vindictive.

  • Stephen Redgrave
    Stephen Redgrave
    April 06, 2013 - 09:20

    Keep the pressure on King! He has cut so deep that his department is bleeding profusely, eventually it will bleed out and die. We We can't let them do it. If it survives it will be weak and barely able to function in society.