The Criminal Mind

Not infrequently one sadly reads of criminal activity in small rural towns.  Ours is no exception. Since my arrival here in 1976 with my yellow Labrador puppy I have learned of several instances of the criminal mind at work.  My personal involvement (very early in my career) was the attempted bribery of me by two young tricksters whom I met late one night by chance in a bar “on the other side of the River“; namely, a soda fountain in Hull, Québec. One of them at least came from my home town. Apparently I subsequently made the mistake of inviting them to my home for a drink.  After their visit I was telephoned twice by an unidentified person (whom I knew in an instant was either or both of the youngsters). They demanded $50 or “there would be trouble!

While this was unsettling, I did nothing about the calls until later. When by coincidence I could not locate my sterling silver cigarette case which I customarily left on a side table in the living room (the same room in which I had entertained the young gentlemen) I presumed they had stolen it. This infuriated me because the case had belonged to me father.  He never smoked but he always carried a fully packed cigarette case when sporting evening wear or a mess kit. I knew where one of the boys lived on the other side of Town in what was then despairingly referred to as “Irish Town” or “Pecker Hill“. The area has since become gentrified but at the time there was a distinct air of privation. So nettled was I by their theft that I drove to the house and knocked upon the door. A middle-aged woman answered the door. She was instantly disquieted by my appearance (and my large black car parked at the front). I merely asked to speak to her son. I was probably wearing a three-piece suit at the time with my late grandfather’s gold watch chain suspended across my waistcoat. When the boy came to the door (which he closed behind him to speak with me – and no doubt to isolate himself from his mother) I told him in no uncertain terms that I wanted the immediate return of the cigarette case or I would report the theft to the police. I made no allusion to the scandalous phone calls.

I never heard from either of the boys again.  I can only imagine the conversation the one had with his mother after my interrogation.  Nor did they ever return the cigarette case. The reason however was because they did not have the cigarette case.  I did.  Unknown to me it had fallen off the side table on the living room floor where it remained undetected until I fortuitously located it.  I never afforded the boys an apology for my misrepresentation.  It reminds me of that quip, “Lies are only a truth that no one believes!” Meanwhile I delighted in the pleasure of having responded so heroically to the putative theft.

Of more consequence was the murder of the wife of a colleague. My colleague and his wife had separated after many years of marriage.  The charred remains of the wife were found on a path along the Ottawa River in Ottawa.  Though my colleague was initially arrested for questioning it was subsequently proven that the wife was killed by the estranged husband of the wife’s sister. The story was widely reported at the time and I have probably got all but the murder mixed up.

Pre-dating that horrific dilemma was a less publicized but equally chilling affair involving another local lawyer. He was at the time a young chap who had recently taken over the firm of a retired lawyer. The chap telephoned me one day to ask that in preparation for the closing of a real estate transaction he wished me to deliver certain signed papers on the understanding that the money payment, etc. would follow later.  I forget why he asked me to do so.  I did not like the smell of his proposal. I telephoned him later and requested he visit me at my home that evening – which he did.  When I explained to him my objection about closing a deal in the manner he asked, he became immediately hardened and voiceless.

Months later it surfaced that the young lawyer had on numerous occasions falsified documents or failed to register them. He was disbarred by the Law Society of Upper Canada.  I have no knowledge of the other legal proceedings against him.

A confrontation arose with another lawyer “up the line” which is to say northwards along the Ottawa River.  Once again the matter grew from a real estate transaction. He acted for a Vendor; I for a Purchaser. In the process of conducting my search of title (a report prepared by a qualified Title Searcher then reviewed by me) I discovered an admittedly esoteric objection to the title.  When I approached the Vendor’s lawyer about correcting it, he suggested in the strongest terms that considering the trifling nature of the objection we (that is he and I in conjunction) could overcome the putative issue merely by signing what were then called the “Optional Planning Act Statements” which – when done by two lawyers for separate parties – effectively cures the error. This would not have been the first time I had encountered a lawyer who sought to persuade me to dismiss an objection to title. The first time it happened we ended in court and I won.  On this occasion I hadn’t the need to resort to a court of law.  The Vendor’s lawyer agreed to correct the error in the proper manner – which involved assistance from the local municipality. The deal closed. No problems.

I was caught in an uncomfortable problem when representing two people who – through other channels – ended in a dispute. We all knew one another and were I felt well-intentioned on all sides. My first client had lent money to the other. I hadn’t acted for the borrower because it was a corporation independently represented. The people I knew in particular were certain of the shareholders for whom I had acted in other matters. The first could not pay the second client.  I naturally refused to represent either party.  Subsequently I learned that the first party defaulted and the second party magnanimously accepted the loss.  My point in mentioning this is that it shows the distinct possibility of unimaginable contest. It also heightens the adage about one’s choice of bedfellows.

Though I never did much court work, one expressly criminal event involved a local businessman who was accused of theft at a nearby hardware store.  His first solicitation to me was to assist him to deny the accusation.  When however I examined him directly about the claim he caved.  I told him that if I as his lawyer could puncture his defence, he could be assured the Crown Attorney would be as able. He agreed. At court when the Clerk read the charge, I insisted my client enter his own response, to which he replied “Guilty as charged“. It was then my turn.  In the end my client got an “Absolute Discharge” – meaning no conviction, no penalty.

Another matter involved the appearance of impropriety – certainly potentially civil and possibly criminal in nature. My dying client was alleged to have signed his last Will and Testament without the capacity to do so. The suit was taken by the estranged spouse of my deceased client. Because the Will of the deceased left nothing to his wife she had been correctly advised by her lawyer that if the Will of the deceased were thrown out of court then she could rely on provincial common law to make what they conceived would be a larger claim to the husband’s estate. I had advised my client of his exposure to a spousal claim but he nonetheless insisted upon signing the Will as instructed.

Herein lies the defence to the wife’s assertion.  The husband had been to see me months before he died to instruct me. At the time I took his instructions he was perfectly normal.  However it was not until he was in the hospital on his death bed from sclerosis of the liver that I was called to attend the hospital to sign what I had prepared months before.  My legal assistant and I did as requested. There were no changes to the document. Although my client was evidently ill he hadn’t lost either his wit or determination.  Unfortunately proving the legitimacy of the Will had to be settled in a court of law.  My involvement was strictly that of a witness. Evidently the parties agreed to settle out of court after I gave my sworn testimony in a court of law.

To wrap up this silly account I want to mention a petty tale.  Throughout my practice I was regularly asked to notarize documents.  This was normally conducted without charge (unless there were a tremendous amount of documentation involved) especially as the people who normally asked me to notarize were already clients. I was visited by the wife of a physician to notarize something.  Afterwards she handed me some cash, adding, “Put it in your pocket!” I resisted the offer but she insisted. When she had left the office I gave the money to my assistant and asked that the customary receipt be mailed to the client. Aside from the purity of reporting all my income – large or small – I had no intention of contaminating my career with such an insignificant detail. Granted this hardly amounts to unadulterated legitimacy but it at least proves the value of penalty. It was also a reminder that there are two ways to get down a river; namely, either you know where to go or you know where not to go.  The practice of law was for me always binary. While I never insisted blindly upon sustaining an argument, I certainly would never have resiled unless I was convinced otherwise.