Inside Queen's Park: Ontario judge’s TV show has legs

Move over, Dr. Phil. Here comes the judge, as in Ontario Court Justice Harvey Brownstone.

The Toronto family court judge has added a new jurisdiction to his purview on Tuesday nights at 10:30 p.m. on CHCH TV in Hamilton, Ont., as well as the CHEK network.

Brownstone discusses family law and sometimes other issues on the show, Family Matters. That he remains a sitting judge may raise some eyebrows, but Brownstone prefers to see himself as a trailblazer for the cause of justice.

“No one is doing this, not Oprah, no one,” says Brownstone, a passionate believer in education and outreach.

His book, Tug of War: A Judge’s Verdict on Separation, Custody Battles, and the Bitter Realities of Family Court, is now in its fifth printing and is required reading for clients in some law offices because of its common-sense approach and tell-it-like-it-is advice on the pitfalls of protracted battles in family court.

Although the just-launched TV show has yet to generate any profits, as with his book, Brownstone directs any income to the Children’s Wish Foundation, a charity that works with terminally ill children.

The show started as an hour-long Internet webcast last year and was an extension of the numerous speaking engagements Brownstone gives across the country on the issues and realities of family law and the downsides of an adversarial approach.

Then, as now, it’s a familiar interview-style show in a studio with armchairs where he leads and questions guests. Brownstone’s passion is infectious.

In addition to appearances by lawyers, children and youth workers, sociologists, psychologists, and others whose practices touch on family law and related issues, three other judges will come on the show, one of them retired and two still sitting.

The TV version, however, is half an hour, a change Brownstone says was due to differences in the audiences.

“We started on the Internet because that’s where people go to get information,” he says, noting that while TV can be just as informative, it also has to have an entertainment component and deliver the goods quickly.

As TV host, Brownstone is the antithesis of Judge Judy or her predecessor, judge Wapner. He’s witty, articulate, engaged, and enthusiastic. It’s that persona that immediately impressed the production team, says producer Nancy Kinney, who’s based in Victoria where the series was shot.

“He’s very professional,” she says. “We shot 15 episodes in three days, and everyone in the studio was impressed.”

The Internet spots went viral, says Kinney, who’s also president of AdviceScene Enterprises Inc. and whose U.S. and Canadian web sites offer free legal answers from lawyers with a mission to democratize the law.

“We’re getting interest from the big national networks now,” she adds.

In the TV game, series sometimes start as a small regional show from an independent producer and then get picked up by a national network like CTV, Global or the CBC or perhaps one of the digital channels like Showcase or Bravo.

That’s when the audience jumps and the project becomes valuable through advertising revenue. Still, that’s a long way off.

For his part, Brownstone is just happy to get the message out that no one wins in a divorce and that it’s better to work things out without going to court.

With the high number of people appearing without legal counsel in family courts, he’s well-versed in simplifying complex issues but realizes there are some inherent dangers.

“One of the reasons judges don’t speak publicly on issues is that they don’t want to be seen to be speaking for the court and to not be viewed as remaining impartial and independent,” he says. “I’m sure I will get complaints but I’ll deal with it.”

Brownstone informed Ontario Court Chief Justice Annemarie Bonkalo of his plan and says she was supportive and wished him luck. The bigger risk, he says, would be to do or say nothing while the system chokes under its own weight and leaves litigants disgruntled with more unresolved matters.

Issues covered in the show this season range from hot-button topics such as parental alienation syndrome and Internet sex addictions to wills and estates and dealing with dog bites.

Brownstone will also tackle Internet dating, something he says may be a factor in divorce itself with more people thinking that if they don’t like their current relationship, there’s always someone else out there online.

“The show is not just about family law,” he says. “It’s about being human.”

Someone should call Oprah quickly. This show has legs.

Ian Harvey has been a journalist for 34 years writing about a diverse range of issues including legal and political affairs. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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