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Canada’s excellent justice system

Canadian lawyers often complain about our justice system, as they should. There are countless problems that need fixing, both large and small. Our governments have severely underfunded legal aid, indigenous people are incarcerated at a disproportionate rate, the courts are run with antiquated paper-based technology and millions of Canadians can’t afford to pay for proper legal advice.

As we start the new year, however, it is also important to see these criticisms in perspective.  Our cover story this month, which profiles lawyers who have helped free clients imprisoned abroad, helps highlight a key point that often gets lost in these discussions: Canada’s justice system is a shining star on the world stage.

Litigator Barry Papazian recounts how his client Cy Tokmakjian was imprisoned in Cuba. Tokmakjian was a respected businessman who suddenly became an accused criminal, swept up in the Communist regime’s anti-corruption drive. Papazian explains that, in his client’s trial, no clear separation existed between the judges and the prosecution and experts were not allowed to testify.

Gary Caroline acted for well-known journalist Mohamed Fahmy, who was arrested on terrorism charges while reporting on the Arab Spring. Caroline travelled to Egypt, and he describes his first-hand observation of the legal system as “eye-opening,” where Egyptian lawyers had to shout over each other — and over a two-metre-high wall — to get the judges’ attention.

Paul Champ was hired by the family of Libyan-Canadian businessman Salim Alaradi, who had been arrested without charge in the United Arab Emirates. Champ recounts how many Emirati lawyers, who had worked on political cases similar to Alaradi’s and been arrested, would not even consider taking up the case.

Amanda Ghahremani, a human rights lawyer in Ottawa, helped get her aunt Homa Hoodfar out of Iran. When Hoodfar was taken to a prison in Tehran, her local lawyer was not told what the charges against his client were, he had almost no access to her and the presiding judge eventually dismissed him without Hoodfar’s consent and replaced him with a lawyer who was deemed acceptable to plead before the Revolutionary Court.

My first-hand experience with Canada’s comparative advantage came when I lived and worked in South Africa, doing legal advocacy for people with HIV. This was a few years after apartheid fell, and Canada’s Charter was held as up as a key example when the new South African constitution was being written. Canadian case law was regularly cited and many lawyers spoke enviously about our rights and protections and how our legal system functioned.

This is not to say we should be complacent, but the examples above should give us pause when we complain about the many problems in our system. Canada, essentially, upholds the rule of law. This is not a platitude. It is a real, tangible truth. Just ask Cy Tokmakjian, Mohamed Fahmy, Salim Alaradi and Homa Hoodfar why their lawyers fought so hard to bring them home.