Brian Daley: Small town life far more appealing

People of the Peace

On a Saturday afternoon in December, the Honourable Judge Brian Daley swung open the back door of the courthouse to let me in for our appointment. 

“Abandon hope, all ye who enter here!” he said, quoting Dante’s Inferno with a jovial tone that stood in contrast with the gravity of the words. 

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It isn’t normal for someone to look forward to a meeting with a judge, but unlike many of Daley’s appointments, that afternoon he was not sitting in deliberation, weighing the allegations brought forward to determine their worth in order to arrive at a sentence. That is what he has been doing in Fort St. John for nearly the past decade. Instead of his robe, he wore jeans and a grey sweatshirt, the same man who can be found polling anyone and everyone about his facial hair, threatening to throw dinner rolls, and boyishly teasing with one-liners.

Many in Fort St. John are already familiar with Judge Daley’s charismatic, animated presence and Maritime accent at society functions. His accent is similar to many of the people who have migrated here for jobs in the energy sector, but instead of coveralls and a hardhat, he wears the solemn black robe and white tie of a provincial judge. When he is behind the bench he is congenial, thorough and professional. 

Although born in St. John's in July of 1955, he was raised in a tiny Newfoundland outport about an hour outside of the captial, known as St. Joseph’s, located in St. Mary’s Bay. He and his twin brother were the oldest of an eventual four brothers. 

His father was a heavy equipment operator on a northern air base for the American Air Force and was gone for all but six weeks of the year for 23 years. When Brian was 17, in his first year of university, his father was sent home for early retirement. But just when young Brian thought he would spend the summer getting to know his father, he suffered a fatal heart attack, and died at age 53.

His father died just months before being eligible for a pension, leaving Daley’s mother to provide for four boys on her own. She did what she could to make ends meet and took any job in the community she could find. She not only provided for her sons, but put all four of them through law school. The respect he has for his mother is clear in the way he talks about her. Sadly, she passed just last month, an event that Daley said he is still working through.

Daley was modest about his academic record, and admitted to middling grades in his undergraduate studies at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. 

“I got gentlemanly ‘C’s and if I got a ‘B’ I was ecstatic,” he said. “I may have staggered into an ‘A’ once or twice during my university career, but I fell into it, it wasn’t due to any great academic ability on my part.”

He wasn’t sure what to do, but he followed the urgings of his twin Bruce, who was a double gold medal scholar in his undergrad, and had his pick of law schools, many of which were courting him with scholarships. Bruce encouraged Brian to take his LSAT, and to his surprise, he did quite well. The University of Windsor accepted him, and he was off to Ontario.

But he was lonely there. At Memorial he was the residence life assistant, served on various committees, a part of a tight community. He didn’t have that at Windsor. 

“By Christmas time I was depressed. I really wrestled with whether I would come back or not,” he said. 

He did come back, and made a concerted effort to weave himself into campus life. He said that while that worked to some degree, there was little about law school that he really enjoyed. 

Law school did give Daley three things: a law degree, his wife Barb and an aversion to big city life. He took all of those things to Fort St. John with him in 1981.

The two of them first saw the Energetic City from the air, visiting Barb’s brother on Victoria Day long weekend of 1981. 

“I said, ‘Barb, I love this place, absolutely love it,’” he said. “On Tuesday morning I went around and knocked on the doors of three firms, and got three interviews and two job offers. So I said, “Barb, let’s try it for a year. Or maybe two,” he chuckled.

They’ve since raised three children here, all boys, and after a successful career practicing law, accepted an appointment as judge in 2005. Like his application to law school, he said he just sort of fell into it.  

“I just didn’t think it was a realistic goal for me,” he said, expecting his predecessor, a friend of his, to spend the rest of his career here. When he left unexpectedly, however, the position opened up. Even then, he said it took a regional administrative judge to bring the opportunity up to him. Both his law partner at the time and his wife said to him flatly, “Of course, you idiot! Why wouldn’t you apply?”

It isn’t usual for someone who is a part of a community as small as Fort St. John to be offered a judgeship. There were a couple of reasons why Daley said he suspects that it was offered to him. First, he did not have a large criminal practice. During his years as a lawyer, he dealt mostly in family law and mediation, which meant that his conflict of interest cases would be minimal. But not having dealt with criminal law also meant that he didn’t seriously consider applying. He was assured that with his experience, compassion, and willingness to listen to people, he would have a chance at it. 

That was true. He was appointed on March 14, 2005, and he has the 14th day of each month marked on his desk calendar, noting how long it has been since he has held the position. 

Despite his avoidance of criminal law as a lawyer, situations do arise from time to time where he has dealt with one of the parties from his past. When it does, whether he has any preconceptions about them, positive or negative, he will recuse himself from adjudicating the case – that is, remove himself from passing judgment and give the case to another judge. If he doesn’t remember having any past involvement with the party, he leaves the decision up to Crown and the defense, and if either one of them has a problem with him sitting on the matter for any reason, he will recuse himself. 

“I want to be as fair about it as possible,” Daley said. 

Even if he does not recall any previous dealings, and if neither Crown nor defense has a problem with Judge Daley presiding over the case, depending on the circumstances and how the public might perceive it, he might recuse himself anyways. He cited Lord Chief Justice Hewart’s famous quote that “not only must justice be done, it must also be seen to be done.”

The second reason he believes he was given the Fort St. John post was simply because he asked for it. 

“I said my preference would, in a perfect world, to be a judge in Fort St. John, in a less perfect world another small community and in my worst dreams in a big urban city,” he said.

“I love winters, and my wife says I can probably get treatment for this, she’s certain there’s a medication somewhere,” he laughed. He enjoys the north for it’s tight-knit communities that he says work better with his “effervescent” personality. 

“It’s always been important to me to really feel that I belong to a community, and that I’m really making a contribution that I can almost taste and see and feel,” he said. “I can’t go into a restaurant or public place but I’ll know half the people there, and for me that’s a wonderful thing. A lot of my judge friends, they love the anonymity of their role. They’re in a big city, nobody knows them and nobody bothers them. I think for me, because of my personality, had I been appointed to a different community I don’t think I would have enjoyed the job nearly as much. I absolutely love what I do and I’m incredibly grateful for it, but I would not have wanted to sacrifice my community involvement.”

And he is involved in the community, though not to the extent that he was as a lawyer. He’s had to take a step back in order to preserve his neutrality, though he is more than willing to speak at functions and participate when it is appropriate. 

When he presides over cases, he makes an effort to explain court proceedings to everyone, particularly for the benefit of laypersons, the observing public and those who are on trial. Clarity is very important to Daley. 

“If someone leaves my courtroom and they feel either that they’ve not been heard, or given the opportunity to be heard, or don’t feel that they’ve been treated respectfully, I have failed my job, by how I consider I should be doing my job,” he said.

He also encourages students to come through and tour the courtroom to see how the law is administered on a day-to-day basis. 

When he greeted me with a quote from Dante’s Inferno that afternoon, an ominous passage from a heavy work, said as a joke in his lilting Newfoundlander’s accent, he perfectly illustrated the place that he holds in the community of Fort St. John. To some it might seem like a paradox; the weight of justice contrasted with lightheartedness. But according to Judge Daley, that’s only looking at one side of what he does. 

“Really as a judge, yes there’s a consequence. You represent society’s denunciation of certain conduct, but there’s another important job: the rehabilitative part,” he said. 

To Daley, that is the difference between having a human component as part of the judicial process, rather than just adding up the facts as they are known and running them through a computer to spit out the resulting judgment. 

He illustrated this point with a story of one of the classes that toured through the courthouse, as they do from time to time. The judge made himself available to answer any questions that they had, and one young student was puzzled that the judge would listen to what they believed was an obviously false testimony from a young man. 

“[I said], ‘He has the right to give an explanation and I have an obligation to hear him, because he might say something that changes my mind. But I then owe him a duty to explain to him, respectfully, why I’ve made my decision,’” said Daley.

“At the end of the day, I think that my basic disposition is a very hopeful one. Despite what somebody has done, it doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person, sometimes quite the contrary, sometimes because of the life experience that they’re having right now it’s going to affect them moving forward in a way that they’re going to be able to help other people, that’s what I like to believe.”

One thing that Brian Daley is certain of – he’s not going anywhere. 

“I have no intention of retiring, you put that in there in case anyone wants my job,” he said with mock brevity.

© Copyright Alaska Highway News


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