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TV judge sheds light on Ontario judiciary

Ontario Court Justice Harvey Brownstone says he’s tearing down the thick shroud over Canada’s judiciary by moving readily between the bench and the TV spotlight.

Justice Harvey Brownstone is passionate about informing the public about family law through his TV show. The second season of Family Matters begins airing next month.
Justice Harvey Brownstone is passionate about informing the public about family law through his TV show. The second season of Family Matters begins airing next month.
The family court judge has grown tired of looking on from the bench as litigants struggle to navigate the justice system. That’s why, Brownstone says, he didn’t hesitate when a producer approached him about hosting a TV show called Family Matters.

It all started with his 2009 book, Tug of War: A Judge’s Verdict on Separation, Custody Battles, and the Bitter Realities of Family Court. His tale of the family court and tips on how to handle it struck a chord with Canadians, he says.

“The book became a bestseller, quite by surprise to me. I never thought a book by a judge would attract a lot of media, but it did.”

After his extensive book tour, a quick-thinking producer had an idea to tape discussions between Brownstone and others in the family law bar and post them on the Internet. With more than 70 per cent of family court litigants acting for themselves, Brownstone agreed it would make sense to host a public education show.

“The show became so successful online, [with] thousands and thousands of hits every day from all over the world, we ended up getting picked up by TV,” says Brownstone, whose show debuted on CHCH TV in September 2011. The first season had 15 episodes dealing with issues ranging from better ways to handle divorce and separation to sex addiction and men’s issues in family law.

Brownstone notes he tapes the show during his vacation. “I don’t get any money for it because I’m a judge,” he says.

After its renewal for another year, Family Matters has filmed its second season that will air in May 2013. The season’s 16 episodes will include experts discussing topics such as gambling, family finances, bullying, anger management, same-sex parenting, and Internet dating.
The rule is if a topic comes up in family court, it’s fair game for the show. Once they air on TV, all episodes are available for free viewing on the show’s web site at familymatterstv.com.

“There was such a hunger for information about family law, about family court, and about separations and divorce,” says Brownstone, whose voice rises with enthusiasm when he talks about the show’s potential.

“I realized that this was an important way for a judge to enhance access to justice. I get so excited.”

Soon, he realized that the weight of his position as a judge meant people wanted to devour his words regardless of what he was saying.
“Nothing that I was saying was that new or different, but when it comes from a judge, people listen,” he says.

“I noticed that I could use my position as a judge to convey important information to people that wasn’t getting through the other ways that people get information.”

The show has opened up the judiciary in a country where judges rarely appear on television, he says. “This was never available before. Judges weren’t accessible. The only way to get access to a judge was to come to court.”

A few judges, including Ontario Court justices Robert Spence and Stanley Sherr, have already been on the show and Brownstone says several others have written to him asking to join him on the set. When judges are on TV out of their judicial robes and sitting on a red couch, their human side comes through, says Brownstone.

“Hopefully, we’re showing the public that judges are people, too — that they care about these issues.”

But some judges and members of the bar have a rather ominous view of a Canadian TV judge, says Victoria Starr, a Toronto family lawyer who has appeared on Family Matters.

“Is this the proper decorum?” she says in recounting the comments of those who see the show as “completely inappropriate” and fear Brownstone may become Canada’s Judge Judy. But that’s not the case, she adds.

“There are many of us, me included, [who think] as long as it’s done tastefully — and this one is — and it improves the lives of those who see it, if it helps them in one little way, we can use all the help we can get.”

For his part, Brownstone says he has no intention of turning the show into a venue for sensational family drama. On his show, the discussions consider issues only from the point of view of the law, he says. “I’m not out to sensationalize things or to scandalize or to embarrass anybody. I’m really just trying to educate the public.”

Brownstone’s show also provides a realistic depiction of lawyers, says Starr. In an age of shows like Suits, it’s time to reveal the average lawyer to the public, she says, adding it helps that Brownstone “isn’t a stuffy guy.”

When family lawyer Erin Crawford went on Family Matters to talk about family finances, she felt slightly nervous and kept the news from her colleagues. But once she was on the set, Brownstone made it easy, she says.

“He was a very welcoming host. He made me feel comfortable. He made it so that you forgot there were other people around. It was like having a conversation.”

Kelly Jordan of Jordan Battista LLP keeps a DVD of Family Matters episodes in her office and encourages clients to borrow it. Brownstone’s discussions on the family court are as much about the alternatives to it as what goes on in it, she says. “It’s important that he’s the messenger.”

For Brownstone, the show is also good public relations for the family law system, an area he says gets a bad rap. Embroiled in their lawsuits and determined to wage war, family law litigants sometimes don’t realize they’re seeking vengeance rather than justice, he notes. And when their lawyers don’t do as they say, they get angry.

“I’m proud that this show gave many lawyers a chance to come on TV,” he says. “The public gets to hear the lawyers explain what they do.”
The next season of Family Matters will air on CHEK TV in British Columbia and CHCH TV in Ontario.

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