At a time when the soaring costs of the Canadian justice system are causing widespread alarm, the longest, most expensive child custody case in British Columbia’s legal history continues to drag on. The unprecedented hearing, which has so far consumed 93 court days over 13 months at an estimated cost of more than $1 million, has prolonged the anguish of the family involved and earned the presiding judge a stinging rebuke from B.C. Chief Justice Allan McEachern.
At the centre of the controversial hearing is an eight-year-old Vancouver boy whom child welfare officials took from his parents while the family was vacationing in Hawaii in April, 1981. The Hawaiian officials charged that the parents had neglected the boy. At the time, the child was near death as the result of starvation and weighed only 2814 lb. He is now in a Vancouver foster home, unsure of his future. There was hope of a resolution earlier this month when a provincial court judge ruled that the government should return the boy to his parents. But that
decision, which Family Court Judge Douglas Campbell, 38, delivered in a 211-page judgment, touched off a judicial fire storm. The province immediately appealed the ruling and took the unusual step of asking McEachern to review the decision.
When McEachern had completed his review late last month, he approved the appeal—and he did not mince words. In a rare display of public criticism, he said that Campbell had lost control of the lengthy hearing. “I regret
exceedingly that it has fallen to me to criticize the conduct of another judge,” the chief justice said in an oral judgment. Nevertheless, he added that he was not going to overturn Campbell’s decision. “I decline to quash the learned judge’s order,” McEachern said. “But at some point this ceased to be a fair trial.” A reversal would spark a new hearing and would mean another lengthy delay for the family. As it is, despite McEachern’s desire to resolve the matter quickly, no date has been set for a county court appeal.
During the marathon family court hearing before Campbell, the boy’s father testified that the child had become disturbed and refused to eat when the father’s contracting business encountered financial difficulty. Despite expert testimony that the boy’s parents had neglected their child, Campbell ruled that officials should return him to his family. The decisión surprised the chief justice, who said that the boy’s treatment troubled him. While McEachern stressed that the
highly publicized case was not typical of B.C. justice, he concluded: “The trial judge can and must control the orderly progress of a case. This trial judge failed at that.”
Despite the harsh words from the senior judge, no further action is likely to be taken against Campbell. Still, for a man who, at 29, was celebrated as the youngest B.C. provincial judge ever appointed, a case that court officials originally estimated to demand no more than 20 court days has turned into a public nightmare.
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