Penticton's 'people's judge' retiring after three decades behind the bench - InfoNews

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Penticton's 'people's judge' retiring after three decades behind the bench

Penticton Judge Gale Sinclair will be retiring after three decades as judge in the Penticton court house on March 30, 2018.
February 15, 2018 - 2:14 PM

PENTICTON - It will be the end of an era when a Penticton judge retires next month.

Penticton Provincial Court judge Gale Sinclair offered some personal opinion and observations from his three decades behind the bench in court today, Feb. 15.

The well-known judge’s last day will be March 30, ending a career that spanned two months short of 30 years.

Raised in Cranbrook, Sinclair spent 15 years practicing law in Penticton before taking on the judge’s role in 1988.

“I was practising in an era where you were everything to everyone. You couldn’t do that today,” he says, adding he practised a lot of criminal and personal injury law.

Like most judges, he has travelled around the province as a judge, but he was Penticton’s only judge for 22 years, before judge Meg Shaw became a Penticton judge in 2010, and judge Gregory Koturbash joined the ranks in 2012.

Sinclair says he’s seen a lot of change in the justice system over the past 30 years, noting Charter challenges are taking up much of the court’s time in 2018, compared to when the Charter was in its infancy in the late 1980s.

He notes impaired driving cases have also undergone radical change, as the introduction of the immediate roadside prohibition and decriminalization of impaired driving charges has led to far fewer cases coming before the courts.

“An impaired driving charge used to take an hour and a half. The charges are mostly gone now, but if you do get one, it’s a couple of days, as lawyers plumb the depths of the Charter,” he says.

Sinclair earned a reputation as a straight talker (and heavy smoker), a quick wit and one of few people on the bench who would or could engage with people before him on a human level. He says his philosophy behind the bench is based on his view that everyone who has come before him are people first.

“We’re all just folks. I’m a guy with a job, and that’s the way I’ve approached it. A lot of it is common sense and people skills. You do the best you can with disadvantaged folks, in a lot of cases,” he says.

Sinclair says his many years in Penticton have proved to be advantageous to presiding over Penticton court.

“I’m lucky to have been here this long. I know all the players. I know who the bad asses are, and the others who, for whatever reason, do stupid stuff. You take that into account, too,” he says. “We are all victims of crime at some time. I recently had the tail light on my vehicle busted. I think some bozo was just walking up the alley, drunk or high, or something, and gave it a boot. Hopefully, it was a random act."

Sinclair says he can’t readily recall any cases that stand out in any particularly unique way. He says his experience tells him Penticton is no different than other municipalities when it comes to crime.

“I used to say, if it weren’t for booze, I wouldn’t have a job. Lately, if it weren’t for those damn hard drugs, I wouldn’t have a job,” he says.

“I don’t see 98 per cent of the population. Most of the time I see the two per cent who are drug addicted, mentally ill, or disadvantaged. Sometimes, I’ll pick up a pre-sentence report and I’ll just know when reading it this person never had a chance, from right out of the womb,” he says. “These are the people I see. What you’ve got to remember, they’re all people."

The judge praised local media for their accuracy, adding he regularly reads the local papers, but doesn’t pay much attention to social media.

He’s seen comments in letters to the editor columns regarding his work behind the bench, calling them “water off a duck’s back.”

“How many thousand cases have I done? I couldn’t begin to count, and if I went home and worried about them, I’d be in the looney bin. I do my best at the time and walk away from it,” he says, adding the job is misunderstood by many who criticize, often influenced by stories of lengthy prison sentences handed out and reported in the American media.

He provided the recent example of U.S. gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar receiving a sentence of 40 to 175 years in prison for sexually assaulting young women and girls.

“What’s that about? Here it would have been 12 to 15 years,” he says.

The judge offered his views on Penticton’s judicial facilities, noting the recent R. v. Jordan decision has resulted in judges “right away” looking at the offence date and when the crimes were sworn to see if there is a potential issue with the case’s timing through the courts.

The decision, which was handed down by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2016, sets a ceiling for the length of time it should take between an accused being charged, and the completion of trial.

He says Penticton could use an additional part-time judge, adding the court can’t keep sending cases to Kelowna.

He also notes the present courthouse, built in the 1940s, is due for an expansion or, better yet a complete rebuild.

Judge Sinclair says retirement plans include getting his golf game back on track and more travelling.

He says he’s “a few books behind” favourite author John Grisham’s series, as he prepares to trade legal dissertations in for more recreational reading.

The judge says his stepson, Josh, who has Down syndrome, also keeps him busy.

“I’m going to miss being a part of something, because on the 30th day of March I’m just going to be another old fart. I still have to come to terms with that. On the other hand, I’m going to be 70 years old in May.

"There has to come a time,” he says.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Steve Arstad or call 250-488-3065 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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