Even in the age of email, letters seduce us — the intimacy of a personal voice drawing us in, often revealing as much about the author as the subject, offering a glimpse, a sliver of a life.
And correspondence penned nearly half a century ago by retired B.C. Supreme Court Justice Harry Boyle vibrantly evokes the quotidian aspects of his legal practice and its emotional toll.
Believe it or not, there was a time in this province when lawyers charged only $30 a day — and wore their humanity on their sleeves, sometimes representing an offender on a whim out of compassion:
“This appeal was not authorized by legal aid … Since it was not authorized, I have submitted no account with respect to it apart from adding one to ‘days in court’ on the enclosed form. If you feel this is sneaking around the end, then please deduct $30.”
Now 93, Boyle came from a legal family in Penticton, but he started in journalism in the 1950s at The Whitehorse Star.
He worked in a dilapidated garage under the motto Illegitimus non carborundum, mock Latin for “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”
A visit to Yukon by federal officials triggered Boyle’s headline: “Better class of drinkers in town.”
He turned to law in 1963.
Vancouver lawyer Don Rosenbloom laughed upon hearing I had found a selection of his former’s partner’s letters published as a booklet in the mid-1990s by the Legal Services Society for young lawyers.
When a letterhead envelope from their office arrived at legal aid in the ’70s, Rosenbloom recalled: “They were always disappointed if it contained my bills instead of his — his letters were cherished.”
Boyle wrote them to Frank Maczko, then executive director of legal aid, explaining his fees.
Sometimes it was a brief note: “I am billing for trial since I prepared for trial and was un-notified of the stay until the date for trial. If this is not cricket (or baseball as played by the New York Mets), I expect you will advise me.”
The wry epistles, however, capture Boyle’s personality and, read today, offer us a chance to ask whether the profession has significantly changed.
Some things, like winning a friendly judge, certainly haven’t: “I appeared to fix a date on Dec. 14 and looked up to see one of the pleasantest sights a man could see in court — his honour Judge (Nicholas) Mussallem on the bench.
“Seizing the opportunity, since in my opinion, they had Mr. B. cold, I pleaded him guilty. He was fined $75 despite a lengthy record and given till Feb. 1 to pay and further advised by his hour Judge Mussallem — if he found it difficult to pay by that time to be sure and let him know.”
Services for the mentally ill remains problematic, if less harrowing.
Boyle recounted the case of a client, accused of attacking his wife and baby with a knife, remanded to the old Colony Farm facility for the criminally insane for psychiatric tests.
“I visited him out there,” he wrote, “and after the brief period of my own visit I wondered whether I was crazy. It is an appalling place to send someone whose sanity or insanity is in doubt.”
He managed to have the man released after a terrifying 30 days in bedlam:
“In the meantime, I understand that his friends got together and bought him a one-way ticket to New Zealand, which is his home, and where all concerned hope that relatives will take over and see that he is provided with psychiatric care. I have not yet informed the court that the bird has flown, but plan to do so in the hope that they will agree that his flight is the best practical answer to the problem … I can’t help feeling it is another comment on the system when the best possible solution is a one-way ticket out of town.”
Like the addled, the addicted continue to pose a dilemma.
Boyle worried they also had “a fly-paper-like quality to which all the minor sections of the criminal code seem to adhere.”
A judge had the power back then to order committal for treatment — but there was an abundance of loopholes and no easy moral answer for a defence lawyer like Boyle:
“If a man has been picked up six or eight times ‘dead drunk in the gutter’ who wins if he’s kept out of (treatment)? Providing that the evidence with respect to the circumstances of the subject’s life is accurate and properly produced, then there seems to be a fairly strong argument for drying him out for his own protection.
“On the other hand, perhaps a man has the right to choose his own path to disability and death, but it puts the lawyer in a tough spot if he takes the drinker by the hand and leads him through a legal loophole to self-destruction.”
The system still runs on recidivism: The same people over and over again, an inter-generational revolving door.
Consider Boyle’s relationship with a 13-year-old boy facing incarceration: “Donald, what would keep you out of trouble?”
“Horseback riding,” the adolescent replied.
“That’s the first simple answer I have ever heard to the delinquency question,” Boyle wrote, before paraphrasing Richard III: “I wish I had a horse.”
That boy was soon back in his office, repeatedly.
Barely an adult, he was prosecuted for stabbing a man in a “friendly” drunken Skid Road dispute; Boyle noted Donald helped the victim back to his hotel and provided medical attention.
“Some of the merriment goes out of the situation when you realize that when Donald was a little boy his father used to take him down to the basement and with the family forced to look on, would beat Donald with a 2×4 until he bled as a disciplinary example … He is a likeable, intelligent, young man …”
At 19, Donald was up for strong-arming a store owner.
“He was up to five caps a day in heroin, but somewhere inside there are still strong streaks of decency, honesty and humour. He and his younger brother used to stay in the movies until they closed and then sleep in the lobbies of skid road hotels. When his brother was 12, the brother was taken to Brannan Lake (School for Boys in Nanaimo) and he was subsequently adopted by a good strong family. Since then the brother has become an outstanding athlete and a good student.
“Donald did not get quite the same breaks, and what breaks he did get he couldn’t put to the best use. I get flashes occasionally when I see my own kids sitting at the counsel table and the whole thing really comes home.”
Boyle’s letters are poignant reminders that little has changed in the practise of criminal law, especially the heartache.
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