Earlier this year my client killed his wife. Then the police killed him.
I learned those awful facts during my early morning routine, reading the Globe and Mail with a coffee. I hadn’t even paid attention to the story the first day it appeared, with information about two dead in a nearby community. I had moved on to sports, business and entertainment. It was the day two story that had his name and the name of his wife. My stomach coiled into a knot. Impossible. Theirs was what family law lawyers commonly refer to as a “routine divorce” - separation after several years, three kids, custody and residential schedule issues, child and spousal support and property division – yet another Canadian family dividing itself and starting over in two new homes.
There was a court date coming up. There had been four-way meetings and case conferences at which they were more than civil to each other. They were nice people. Her father even came to court with her for moral support. One day we were e-mailing each other about travel consents for the three children to go on a ski trip (put it in the kids’ knapsack). Two days later, they were both dead. No clues. No hints.
My assistant for the last several years arrived at the office that morning and I assumed that she had also heard the news about our client. It was now on radio and TV. When I asked, she said no, and looked up at me, curious, as if perhaps our client had been in the business news. As I explained, her face became a textbook photo of shock and sadness. She had worked closely with him over the last year or more, gathering the usual disclosure, completing a Financial Statement and booking appointments. He had been unfailingly civil and cheerful with both of us throughout.
For the rest of the day we took turns walking to and from each other’s desks saying, “I don’t believe it.” “Why?” “What about their children?” Later that day I looked up from my work to see her in the doorway to my office holding her stomach. “I am shaking inside,” she said. She looked shaky.
I had called and e-mailed opposing counsel, a young woman with a good firm. She was reeling as well. No hints. No clues. Nothing.
And then the inevitable practical questions surfaced. When will the police arrive at my office? Is there solicitor-client privilege in these circumstances? Can they take my client’s file? I looked at the Law Society of Upper Canada website. There are no FAQ’s for murder and police shootings.
I left what must have sounded like a haunted message and went for a walk around the financial district in downtown Toronto. When I returned I e-mailed a senior family law lawyer for advice about solicitor-client privilege. Although on vacation, he responded within minutes with a specific reference to a case, and my already high regard for him soared. I pulled the case and read. It’s funny how a bit of tangible black and white law can settle you down.
Later, a lawyer from the Law Society called. He calmly gave me chapter and verse on handling my file. He provided me with the LSUC “Guidelines for Law Office Searches” (copy file, seal original, wait for search warrant, examine validity of search warrant, keep notes, assert privilege, call 416-947-3300 and ask to speak to senior counsel, and so on). We had the file prepared accordingly within 24 hours. Nothing like guidelines, definitions and rules to settle a lawyer down.
That is until my client’s mother called me. My stomach coiled again. I could hear that her heart was broken. We shared our thoughts about her son and her grandchildren. As she spoke in a shaken, hollow voice about the son she adored, I thought my heart would break too; there is no law that anchors you for that.
The fog of grief was never thicker than at my client’s visitation and funeral. It was a gorgeous Saturday. The sun was blazing and the snow was melting, as hundreds of stunned people walked like zombies into the funeral home. No one understood what had happened.
I didn’t know anyone and stood alone until I summoned the nerve to introduce myself to his mother, his brother, family and friends. I didn’t want anyone to know that I was “the lawyer.” I felt a part of a process that had contributed to this tragedy. I felt shame. Across the city a similar scene of horrible grief played out at another funeral home for the mother. Their three children attended two funerals within a few days of each other. They, least of all, understood this nightmare. As a parent myself, I struggled to put myself into their shoes. There is no law for that feeling either.
I saw opposing counsel at court the other day. She says she is okay. That’s what I tell people too. No grief counsellors came to our offices; no one has told us what really happened. We know only what we read in the newspapers. My file still sits sealed in a cabinet. I have never heard from the police - not so much as a phone call. But I have re-read my client’s file and other clients’ too, several times, searching for the clues I might have missed. Hints. Anything.
About the Author
Michael Cochrane is a partner with Brauti Thorning Zibarras LLP and head of the family and estates law practice.
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