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A day in the life of one of Vernon's Provincial Court Judges

Provincial Court Judge Richard Hewson sits in the law library of the Vernon Courthouse.
November 09, 2017 - 1:03 PM

VERNON - He doesn’t wear a wig or swing a gavel. His uniform is a floor-length, black robe and his office is at 3001 27 St. — the historic Vernon Courthouse. The former infantry platoon commander is one of B.C.’s Provincial Court Judges, and he admits the title of Judge Richard Hewson has taken some getting used to.

So has taking a trip to the grocery store or restaurant, and the fact that every time he stands up in court, everyone else does too. Hewson was called to the bench in 2013, following a roughly 20-year career — most of it in Vernon — as a criminal defence lawyer (before that he served in the Canadian army). Known for his thoughtful judgements and passion for making the justice system as open and transparent as possible, Hewson presides over everything from assault cases to civil matters to family disputes. As one of the three resident judges who sit in Vernon, his name appears frequently in court stories published on this news site.

Journalists don’t usually get the opportunity to speak on-on-one with judges, who are fairly limited in what they can say outside of the courtroom. But Hewson, with the chief judge’s permission, has agreed to be interviewed.

"YOU THINK ABOUT THEM ALL THE TIME"

Hewson graduated from the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario in 1987 and later went back to law school, graduated from the University of Victoria in 1994.
Hewson graduated from the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario in 1987 and later went back to law school, graduated from the University of Victoria in 1994.

When we meet at a coffee shop down the street from the Vernon courthouse on a Friday morning, Hewson is clad in a heavy winter coat and a toque.

“People often don’t recognize me in my street clothes,” Hewson says.

Normally, he’s in court already, dressed in his robe, but it’s a judgement day, reserved for writing decisions that will later be delivered in court. For many who find themselves thrust into the court system, either as offenders, victims or families, those decisions can’t come quickly enough.

“There’s a lot of pressure to get things done quickly,” Hewson says. “I try to explain to people, it’s better to be right than fast. Sometimes, if you go too quickly, you can get it wrong.”

The decisions revolve around finding people guilty or innocent, whether to send them to jail, and if so, for how long? Should a child be removed from her parents and placed in foster care? The decisions can be life-changing for individuals and their loved ones, and have a ripple effect on the community-at-large.

“You think about them all the time,” Hewson says of the cases he presides over. “I wish I could say that I didn’t, but some of the problems people have are difficult to set aside. Everyone is fighting their own battle; some are fighting it better than others.”

He recalls one drug case that involved a charge related to fentanyl.

“I asked him if he knew anybody that had died from a fentanyl overdose. He said ‘yeah, dozens of people.’ He seemed resigned to it, like there was nothing he could do, that this was the way his life was going to go. I felt pretty disturbed by that,” Hewson says.

In his office in the Vernon courthouse, Hewson has a statue of Lady Justice. A gift from a close friend, the statue depicts the Goddess of Justice with a blindfold over her eyes, a set of scales in one hand, and a sword in the other. Most might not know what that image means exactly, but it’s a symbol Hewson lives by every day.

The Lady Justice statue in Hewson's judge's chambers.
The Lady Justice statue in Hewson's judge's chambers.

“The blindfold suggests there’s to be no bias to one party or the other. The scales being held up suggest matters are to be weighed out carefully. The sword indicates that where… there’s a penalty to be imposed, it will be imposed,” Hewson says.

Judges are sometimes criticized by the public for a variety of reasons, the most common in this publication’s comments section being that sentences are too lenient and people are acquitted too easily. By nature of their job, judges won’t please everyone. They aren’t on anyone’s side — not the victim’s and not the offender’s. Their job is to treat both sides fairly, and in accordance with the law.

“Court is the forum where all sides can be thought about,” Hewson says.

Having worked in small communities for the bulk of his time as a judge (before Vernon, he sat for several years in Nelson) Hewson says it can be awkward running into lawyers and justice system participants in public, but for the most part, people surprise him.

“I remember one day making an order that a child be taken into the care of the director, and placed up for adoption. I went to Subway for lunch after, and the gentleman in the line up in front of me said ‘good afternoon Judge Hewson’ and it was the father of the child I just put up for adoption. He was remarkably decent about it.”

“JUDGES ARE JUST THE SAME AS EVERYBODY ELSE”

Judge Richard Hewson in court with provincial family court clerk Giselle Wood.
Judge Richard Hewson in court with provincial family court clerk Giselle Wood.

As Hewson makes his way around the courthouse, he chats with sheriffs, clerks and other court staff, often cracking jokes that are at odds with the calm, reserved demeanour he holds on the bench. One of the biggest misconceptions about judges — aside from the fact that in Canada, they don’t wear wigs or use gavels — is that they are always serious, Hewson says.

“In a courtroom, there is no room for levity. But outside of court, judges are just the same as everybody else,” Hewson says.

He recounts one story in which a fellow judge was filling in for him while he was out of town. As a practical joke, Hewson swapped out their robes so the other judge would be left with his. If you’ve ever met Judge Hewson, you’ll know he’s on the shorter end of the height spectrum, putting his robe closer to the other judge’s knees than the ground. Fortunately for the judge, the clerk was in on it too, and reunited him with the proper robe before court convened.

Practical jokes aside, court staff play a vital role in carrying out the daily operations of the courthouse.

“I thought after almost 20 years as a lawyer I knew how everything worked at the courthouse. I maybe knew 20 per cent,” he says. “From where I sit, I can see all the people in the gallery, the lawyers, journalists, you can see everything. I was struck by right in front of me, the clerks are so busy, they never stop moving.”

The Provincial Court handles 225,000 cases a year, split between roughly 141 judges. Some days, Hewson might have a couple trials, while on others he might see 20 or 30 different people scheduled for short, procedural appearances. As part of his job, Hewson also sits occasionally in remote communities like Kwadacha and the Tsay Keh Dene Nation in northern B.C.

Vernon Courthouse
Vernon Courthouse

“In Tsay Keh Dene we use a classroom in the learning centre. We move the tables around and set it up like a courtroom. You don’t need anything fancy to hold court,” he says.

Proving his point, Hewson recalls one day last winter when the power went out in a huge snowstorm in Vernon. Instead of turning people away, court staff came up with an idea to hold court in the front entranceway — the brightest area of the courthouse thanks to the large, stained glass windows.

A little known fact is that courthouses are open to the public, and anyone can come in and watch the proceedings. Hewson loves seeing high school law students and members of the public coming in and getting acquainted with their courthouse and the justice system in general. With the rise of the digital age, more and more judgements are also posted publicly online.

“Judges are trying more and more to write their reasons in plain language so they are accessible to a wide range of people,” Hewson says.

The provincial court also has its own Twitter handle (@BCProvCourt) and is engaging more with the public.

Judges have to retire at 75, and Hewson says he has no plans of leaving early.

“They’ll have to drag me out of here,” he says with an earnest laugh. “This is the best job I’ve ever had.”

Difficult and trying at times, Hewson says it is also incredibly rewarding.

“The courtroom is a reflection of what’s going on in the community. You see bad things, and you see some really good things. You see people that are overcoming challenges,” he says. “From time to time, you see the good in people in the most unexpected ways.”


To contact a reporter for this story, email Charlotte Helston or call 250-309-5230 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2017
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