Thursday, December 03, 2015

Must reading for every Family Court Judge in Manitoba and elsewhere!

Good Day Readers:

A special thank you to the reader who brought this article to CyberSmokeBlog's attention. A copy of it has been e-mailed to a Senior Manitoba Law Courts Administrator with that exact message.
Memorial to Toronto Lawyer Frederick G. Gans, Q. C.

Sincerely,
Clare L. Pieuk
Facts And Arguments is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

The tragic death of a divorce lawyer changed my life in unexpected ways

Linda Perlis
Contributed Tuesday, December 1, 2015


This Saturday marks 37 years since Fred Gans, a prominent Toronto family lawyer, was killed by a gunshot fired at point-blank range inside the courthouse by the ex-husband of a woman he was representing in their divorce.

At the precise moment Fred was killed, I was writing my bar exam directly across the street. I was a 25-year-old law student nearing the end of my long journey to becoming a family lawyer myself. Someone, I don’t remember who, called me out of the exam room that morning. I recall rushing to the street and watching the paramedics load Fred’s body into an ambulance.

I had spent the previous year articling for Fred and his small firm. Most of my time there was spent filing and photocopying, but I’d been lucky enough to graduate to attendances in court, and appearances with Fred at motions and trials. We often lunched together and talked about the rewards and perils of practising family law.

I had started the year feeling a strong desire to be a family lawyer, but by the end of it I wasn’t so sure. I’d seen so many accusations and counter accusations flying back and forth in affidavits, mostly generated by aggressive lawyers, fuelling the flames of incendiary divorces. I’d seen families left in ruins, children devastated. The adversarial system took no prisoners. In those days, there was no mediation or child representation. It was barbaric.

Fred urged me on, encouraging me to try to make a difference. He was different than the others. He had heart. He cared deeply for his clients, but also respected opposing counsel and their clients. He had strong professional and ethical boundaries and believed the system needed reforming, that it encouraged lawyers to over identify with their clients and see opposing clients and their lawyers as enemies. Fred was a family man with two young boys himself.

That year, he assigned me a difficult case to follow as it meandered from one court appearance to another. The opposing ex-husband was representing himself, and lawyers don’t like dealing with angry, self-represented litigants. That is what articling students are for.

This was a scary man, and he was my backstory to Fred’s tragic death.
Jori Bolton for The Globe and Mail

Peter Matas was his name, and he believed that Fred had talked his ex-wife into leaving him and suing him. Matas hated the police, judges, lawyers – and, most of all, Fred. Matas epitomized what was wrong with family law at that time – spouses who thought lawyers directed their clients, rather than the other way around.

Whenever Matas and I were waiting outside a courtroom for our turn, I’d keep my head down and try to become invisible. We didn’t converse, I merely listened to his ranting. I wasn’t aware of how truly dangerous he was, and I have often asked myself since whether things would have gone differently if I’d voiced my worry more strongly. Yes, Matas was the man who killed Fred Gans, and who was later found not guilty by reason of insanity.

The motion on December 5, 1978, was to evict Matas from his home so it could be sold and the proceeds used to pay the arrears of support he owed his wife and three children. Matas was a proud man who felt his home was his castle. For him, eviction was the final emotional injury.

As I had done all the work on the file to that point, Fred asked me to come to his office the night before the motion to brief him. I warned Fred I believed Matas was dangerous, but he laughed it off.

He asked if I could accompany him on the motion, but I had my exam. If I hadn’t, I’d have been in court and most likely dead alongside Fred. I encouraged Fred to get security, but he waved me out.

At the funeral a couple of days later, I was in a fog – confused, guilty and deeply shaken up. I was only months from starting my own family-law practice. After my call to the bar I did try to practise for a couple of years, but Fred was always on my mind. His death had cemented the way I felt about the family law system. I struggled with clients, court appearances and other lawyers. When I tried to be reasonable, clients would accuse me of not advocating vigorously enough for them. They hated not only their ex-spouses, but their ex-spouses’ lawyers as well.

So I quit law and became a social worker. It has been 32 years now since I graduated in social work, and it was the best career decision I ever made – thanks to Fred.

Family law has come a long way since the seventies. Mental-health research demonstrated the emotional damage divorce can do to children and parents. The courts took notice, lawyers took notice and divorce professionals took notice. Now, the adversarial system is the last resort if mediation and arbitration have failed. Children have their own representative in court.

I still work with divorcing families – as an assessor, therapist, mediator and arbitrator, and I like to think that Fred would have approved. I know I make a positive difference.

Every year on December 5, I remember Fred. A beautiful bronze sculpture of him by Maryon Kantaroff stands in the walkway between University Avenue and Nathan Phillips Square. Visit it one day.

Linda Perlis lives in Toronto.

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