A Cornwall justice of the peace “acted in an impetuous fashion” and disregarded an accused person’s rights when she closed bail court early in 2018, a discipline panel found this week.
The early court closure forced a man to spend the night in jail, where he was later discovered with a t-shirt loosely tied around his neck, though otherwise unharmed.
As a result of her conduct, justice of the peace Claire Winchester was found guilty of judicial misconduct in a decision released Wednesday by a three-member panel of the Justices of the Peace Review Council, the independent body that investigates and disciplines JPs.
“We unequivocally conclude that Her Worship acted in haste and without due regard to the right of the accused to have his bail hearing held that day,” the panel’s decision reads.
Justices of the peace are appointed by the provincial government and earn approximately $132,000 a year. Clad in black robes and green sashes, they preside over bail hearings and cases dealing with non-criminal matters covered under provincial laws, as well as sign off on search warrants.
Prior to her appointment in 2011, Winchester worked for many years as a teacher and vice-principal for the Upper Canada District School Board.
The name of the man who was supposed to face a bail hearing before Winchester in June 2018 is covered by a publication ban. He is identified as JJ in the discipline panel’s decision. The Crown had told Winchester in court that JJ was “releasable,” but they were working out the conditions of his release, according to a court transcript filed at her discipline hearing.
Winchester took issue with the fact she was not presented with the “Information,” a document laying out the charges against the individual. A case typically can’t proceed without one and nobody in court seemed to know where the document was, if it even existed.
She adjourned for the day, saying she was “not willing to wait here until everybody finds their way through the system,” according to the transcript. When a lawyer in the courtroom pointed out that there was a man in custody who would be spending the night in jail if Winchester adjourned, she responded:
“Yes, I know that. Yes, and that happens, especially that the time is well exceeded. We don’t even have anything yet to be able to proceed with.”
The discipline panel found that Winchester “displayed impatience from the very beginning” when dealing with JJ’s case, and that she “hastily closed court when the Informations could not be located.”
Later that June afternoon, a police officer found JJ in his cell, sitting on the floor with one end of his t-shirt loosely tied around his neck and the other end tied to the lower part of a cell bar, according to an agreed statement of fact filed at Winchester’s discipline hearing.
JJ was uninjured and taken to hospital as a precaution.
While it was initially reported as a suicide attempt, it “never resulted in any real risk of physical harm; that is, (his) life and health were never truly in danger,” according to the agreed statement of fact. The discovery of the man in his cell did not factor into the panel’s final decision on whether Winchester committed misconduct, but the position he was found in was “nevertheless concerning,” the panel noted.
Winchester’s defence argued at the hearing that she had mistakenly believed that a court protocol outlining when police should have prisoners at the courthouse for their bail hearings meant she had to adjourn when there was no Information before the court.
Winchester also said in a September 2018 response to the review council’s complaints committee that she “showed a true lack of judgment” in adjourning court early that day, and that she should have called a recess and instructed the Crown to gather all necessary information.
But the discipline panel found that when she was on the stand at her Toronto discipline hearing last year, Winchester “took a much different position from that expressed” in her letter. She did not agree that she acted irresponsibly, but rather made a mistake.
She also appeared to shift the blame on basically everyone else in the courtroom, the panel found, including the lawyers for quickly agreeing the man was releasable, the special constable for not giving her more information and the police for not releasing the man themselves.
“It is obvious that, by the time of the hearing, Her Worship did not accept much responsibility for her actions or for JJ being held in custody the night of June 27,” the panel found.
Winchester now faces a penalty hearing on March 18. Possible penalties include an order that she take additional training, be suspended with or without pay, or a recommendation to the attorney general that she be fired.
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In the same decision, the panel found Winchester had not committed misconduct when she left court a separate time early in May 2018. In her response to the complaints committee, Winchester said she left early because of pain in her knee, but the panel found it was “principally because she was bored.”
She arrived at court shortly after 2 p.m., and had found there was no work waiting for her, and so left before the typical 4 p.m. closing time, the panel noted. What she didn’t know at the time was that a man was coming to have his bail conditions varied at 3:45 p.m.
“While there was an instance of neglect of duties, it was not so seriously contrary to the integrity of the judiciary that it undermines the public’s confidence in the judiciary or in the administration of justice generally,” the panel found.