Does poetry have a place in the courtroom? An Ottawa Crown thinks so. In an attempt to convince a judge to convict an accused of an impaired driving charge, the Crown set his submissions to rhyme. Although the judge convicted the accused, she did not mention the use of the unusual literary device. My advice to the Crown: don’t quit your day job.
Poetry and the law are no strangers. Many eminent poets have also been trained in the law such as the American, Wallace Stevens and the Spanish poet, Frederico Garcia Lorca. In Canada, F. R. Scott was a legal scholar who also waxed poetic. He held the position of the McGill Dean of Law in 1961 and was a well-respected constitutional/human rights litigator. Indeed, he was a vocal proponent against the Quebec anti-communist statutes known as the “Padlock Laws.” His poems are beautiful. They are insightful reflections of a proud Canadian and are well worth reading.
But does poetry, for it’s own sake, have a place in the legal arena? It depends on the use. In the Emkeit case, the Crown read an inadmissible and inflammatory poem to the jury on a murder trial. Although the majority of the SCC did not overturn the conviction, the strongly worded dissent by Hall, Spence, and Laskin JJ. suggest they were not amused by the “so-called poem.”
On the other hand, in light of the contextual approach used by the SCC in Charter cases, poetry and other literary material may have a place in elucidating and interpreting Charter rights and values.
For those interested in further reading, there are suggestions at the Law and Literature blog from April.
I just did a very quick search of Supreme Court of Canada cases to see if any literary books and/or authors have been refrred to or quoted. In the 2003 Wu case, Binnie J., speaking for the majority, on the issue of the use of conditional sentences in lieu of fines, referred to the concept of debtor's prison and said:
The trial judge of course put his finger on a serious problem. Debtors’ prison, a dreadful institution excoriated by Charles Dickens in Little Dorrit, is no longer with us. But according to the most recent report from Statistics Canada, 17 percent of all people in custody in provincial or territorial institutions in 2000-2001 were jailed for default on unpaid fines...
By using the Dickens analogy, Binnie J. quickly transports us to the dank and dark world of 19th century England with great effect. Now, this is the way law and literature can really connect!