Impressions of an inquest

Today is the last day of the first week of the Renfrew County inquest. It’s been an interesting week and, now that my witness duties are over for a few days, I’m a little more relaxed.

I have never attended or observed an inquest before, let alone been a witness at one, so I’m on a steep learning curve and full of impressions.

Business casual

An inquest is not a trial so, rather than being in a courtroom, we are in the basement conference room at Pembroke’s Best Western Hotel. The tone, set by presiding officer Leslie Reaume, is both informal and professional. Neither she nor the lawyers is robed. She is referred to by the lawyers as Ms Reaume, not by any fancy title – and most of the rest of us call her Leslie. Despite the not-always-overlapping interests of the parties, there is a certain amount of casual interaction among the lawyers. (Valerie Warmerdam, Nathalie’s daughter, is a party and is representing herself and is included in my references to “the lawyers.”)

People bring their cups of tea or coffee and bottles of water into the room. Thanks to the efforts of the Women’s Sexual Assault Centre, we have fresh cinnamon buns for a morning snack today, and we hear we’ll be getting cupcakes one day next week. We can have our laptops and cell phones with us as long as they are silent. Overall, this atmosphere is far more inviting than that found in a courtroom.

The presiding officer sits at the front of the room at a table and those witnesses appearing in person also sit at the front, facing the lawyers on their left and the jury on their right. We can see those who appear virtually on a large screen behind the presiding officer, and an array of tech equipment sits off to the side. Half the room is given over to rows of chairs for media and members of the public, who come and go throughout the day. We’re all masked, by order of the presiding officer.

The aggressive adversarial attitudes we’re all used to seeing in American courtroom TV shows are largely absent. That’s partly because the purpose of the inquest is not to find individual fault or blame but to develop recommendations for systemic change to prevent similar deaths from happening in the future.

But, I’ve heard, the overall tone of collegiality at this inquest is not the case at all of them, and I credit the presiding officer for this. Her friendly but gently authoritative approach makes it easier for most of us to strive for collaboration, even when we don’t agree.

What actually goes on?

At the beginning of each day, the jury is led into the inquest room by a police constable. All of us, including the presiding officer, stand when the jury enters and leaves the room. They’re seated at tables set up to ensure proper pandemic distancing. We know them only as Jurors 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5, with each chair carrying a large sign reminding us of who is who. They face the front so they can see the witnesses.

Unlike in a criminal trial, the jurors have each been provided with a very thick binder holding printed copies of all the evidence to be introduced during the proceedings and pads of paper on which they can take notes. They can also ask for additional materials, as needed.

Most notably, they can – and do – ask questions of the witnesses which, of course, does not happen in a trial. The presiding officer can also ask questions, as can the lawyers.

This seems to me a sensible way to gather as much information and learn as much as possible. When the time comes for the five jurors to consider recommendations, they should be well equipped to do so.

While we received a detailed schedule for each day of the inquest last Friday, it has undergone significant revisions every day since. The availability of witnesses changes; a last-minute witness appears; someone’s testimony takes longer than expected; there are tech problems; 15-minute breaks stretch out to 25 minutes. I’ve stopped updating my schedule, because it changes so frequently.

Despite scheduling changes, each day has a similar rhythm. Once the jury members are settled in their seats, the first witness is called and asked to promise to tell the truth. Generally, witnesses, with the assistance of PowerPoint slides — speak without much guidance from the lawyer who has called them.  Following the witness’s presentation, the lawyers have an opportunity to pose questions, followed by the jurors. Finally, the presiding officer may do so. And then it is on to the next witness.

The lawyers can raise objections, but even this is done in a somewhat collaborative way, with none of the drama of a lawyer leaping to their feet, fist raised, to holler “Objection!” When the first objection arose here, the lawyer stood up and said, quietly, “I think I might have an objection to that,” whereupon the lawyers put their heads together to come up with a solution.

Being a witness

In my work as a lawyer, I have called, questioned and cross-examined witnesses. I’m also a prolific public speaker, trainer and media spokesperson, all roles in which I feel confident.

But, because I have never been a witness myself until this week, I was pretty nervous. I was called in two different capacities: as a consultant hired by EVARenfrew County to present my report on the community consultations I held in April/May, and as the Legal Director of Luke’s Place, to present a report on intimate partner violence.

Initially, I was to present my community consultations report on Monday, so I prepared myself accordingly: tossed and turned all through the night before, reviewed and tweaked my report, then reviewed and tweaked it again, wondered why I had ever agreed to take on this responsibility, carefully selected my wardrobe and ate a good breakfast.

Alas, by noon, it was obvious I was getting dumped from that day’s schedule, so all my careful preparations had been for naught. I was also on the schedule for Tuesday to speak to my IPV report, so I repeated my preparations – this time, forsaking the possibility of sleep entirely by 3:10 a.m. – and appeared at the inquest on Tuesday morning raring to go.

I was the first of the panel to speak. My presentation took about an hour and was followed by questions from the jurors. The same pattern repeated with each of the three other panelists and, lo and behold, it was suddenly 5 p.m. Questioning by the lawyers was put off until the following day, after which I would present the community consultation report.

All in all, by the end of Wednesday, I was exhausted. It was hard to read the jury’s engagement and reaction through their masks. The province’s lawyer’s cross-examination of me was vigorous. The jurors had smart questions that challenged me to dig deep for answers. Valerie Warmerdam posed very thoughtful questions for me to consider.

After a few media interviews and dinner with a colleague, I was more than happy to head back to the solitude of my hotel room.

Managing trauma

The presiding officer and coroner’s team have made every effort to bring a trauma-informed approach, to the extent that is possible within the inquest process.

A professional support person is available in the courtroom; a quiet room has been set up in a separate space at the hotel for anyone who needs to get away from the proceedings; short meditation sessions have taken place at lunchtime for those who are interested. Peace lilies sit on tables throughout the room, along with small bowls of snacks. Yesterday, I made a large batch of my daily smoothie to share with the presiding officer and lawyers.

We’re talking about hard stuff here and emotions run high at times, but we are doing the best we can to take care of ourselves and one another, and we’re all looking forward to the break presented by the weekend.

3 thoughts on “Impressions of an inquest

  1. This is an outstanding overview and summary. As an advocate I have had the opportunity to attend past inquests and I would agree that this inquest is very different. It is accessible, rooted locally and thoughtful with intention. The EVA team is an amazing group of strong and correct women! As a rural neighbour, the time is now to effect change in rural communities. Much gratitude for your work and leadership.

  2. Thank you for this comprehensive and thoughtful update. I’ve been following this inquest in the bits and pieces that CBC provides.

    I hope you have a restful weekend and look forward to your next update. Thank you for the valuable work you are doing in this inquest.

  3. Thank you so much for giving your insight into this process and for doing the work you do. We volunteered together at KIH more years ago than I care to say and I am back studying in the legal field and following this with great interest and hope.

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