Since becoming a provincial court judge in August 2015, Christine Lowe has had a few sleepless nights pondering the decisions she’s made or about to make that could change someone’s life forever.
She’ll go back and forth, wondering whether she made the right decision after hearing some of the most personal details of someone’s life come out in a courtroom. At times it can be emotional, but it’s an experience she feels privileged to be part of and often reflects upon afterwards.
A judge’s day is full of tough decisions, especially when it comes to sending someone to jail, giving them a criminal record, or letting them out on bail. But at the end the day, Lowe has to walk away feeling confident with the decisions she’s made in the courtroom and move on.
“Sitting in a busy remand court, it’s decision after decision. I think that we just do our best to listen and that’s one of the reasons this job at the end of the day is actually very tiring,” said Lowe during a recent interview with the Victoria News in her judge’s chamber.
“At some point you have to trust you’ve applied the law correctly, you’ve heard all the information, you thought about it in your mind and now you are able to speak on it and give your decision.”
As a provincial court judge, Lowe presides over civil, family, youth and criminal matters in Victoria, the West Shore and Duncan, and she’s never quite sure what each day will bring.
One day she could be in a Duncan courtroom, presiding over a hearing of non payment for child support. The next day she could be back in Victoria for integrated court, dealing with the city’s most vulnerable people — the homeless, addicted and mentally ill, then conduct four criminal trials the next day. One day of the week is typically reserved for judgements, allowing Lowe time to research and write reasons for her decisions.
When it comes to civil and family matters, the parties involved are required to sit down with a judge and have a settlement conference to see if the issue can be resolved without setting a trial. When it comes to criminal matters, however, Lowe walks into the courtroom only knowing the name of the accused and their charges.
Often dealing with tragic circumstances, Lowe has listened to the details of many sad and disturbing cases. Victim impact statements read into the court usually come with buckets of tears from grieving families sharing how their world has been torn apart by the hands of the accused.
Even though she’s heard many horrible stories during her 26 years as a prosecutor, Lowe admits at times it’s difficult not to become emotional when it comes to some of the things she hears. Cases involving parenting time between a separated couple can sometimes be the most difficult since there’s so much emotion at play.
“At the end of the day, you’ve only had a few hours of information about these people’s lives and you’re the one who has to make a decision whereas they’ve spent years having these lives and nurturing and growing this child. The decision we’re making really impacts their (the child) daily lives,” said Lowe, who grew up in Gibsons on the Sunshine Coast and attended law school at UBC.
“There’s no doubt there are times when you feel a little lump in your throat…Most of the times we are able to maintain our composure, but that doesn’t mean to say we don’t come away feeling emotional.”
When it comes to making decisions as a judge, Lowe considers all the information she’s been given, then relies on her expertise and knowledge of the law.
She knows there will always be those who disagree with her decision and left feeling like the criminal justice system has failed. That’s why Lowe feels it’s important to explain her decisions to those in the courtroom, noting a recent case where a victim was badly injured, but the accused was a person of good character who had made a terrible mistake.
“It dawned on me that one of the things I could do was try to, in my sentencing decision, speak to both parties and have them really understand what I was doing and why. They think we pluck these things out of thin air or maybe cases before decide things, but actually the principles of sentencing are set out in the criminal code. These aren’t just words we speak,” said Lowe, adding it’s important that people navigating through the court system feel like they’re heard, which is why victim impact statements are necessary.
“I know sometimes people feel frustrated and sometimes they have a right to. Someone could have been acquitted because the evidence doesn’t meet the necessary burden. What can you say to a family who’s lost a loved one and have seen from their perspective no justice?”
Engaging with people and hearing their stories is what makes being a judge so enjoyable for Lowe. The first from her family to attend university, Lowe never thought some day she would become a judge. And even though it comes with a lot of pressure, it’s a job she describes as fabulously interesting, and a real privilege and honour.
Currently there are about 150 provincial court judges in various locations throughout B.C., including 23 on Vancouver Island. The provincial court handles 95 per cent of all criminal cases in the province.