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Cops And Robbers
by Roger Davies

THIS BOOK is Jack Batten's current bulletin on his love affair with the legal profession. Batten is fortunate in apparently never having met a lawyer he didn't like. On Trial might have been entitled Litigation: A Fax's Notes.

The book is a description of three trials, two civil and one criminal. Their only common feature is that they all add, weight to the cynical truism that the only winners in a trial are the lawyers.

The most interesting of the three is the suit brought against the composer Hagood Hardy, claiming musical plagiarism. Batten's description of a court convened in the dying plaintiffs hospital room adds a new dimension of peril to death. Batten is impartial in his celebration of the skills of all the lawyers concerned. Yet the overwhelming impression is of waste, of an enormous expenditure of intelligence and energy, money and effort to achieve?very little. At the end of it all it is unclear who won. In any event, the lawyers didn't lose.

His second case is an account of parents struggling to put their disabled son in an ordinary school (as opposed to a school for "exceptional" children). Ultimately Luke Elwood's parents won their battle to send him to school with ordinary children, despite the best efforts of the Halifax educational bureaucracy to prevent their doing so. Legally this is the most significant and novel of the cases recounted, dealing as it does with the rights of parents and children. Batten deals well with a complex and difficult area of the law. The nagging question remains: why should lawyers be necessary to deal with a public school board in the first place?

If winning is an ambiguous concept in civil cases there is no doubt whatsoever about who loses in a criminal case. Being sentenced to life imprisonment is definitely losing.

Batten's criminal case concerns the investigation and prosecution of a Vancouver drug trafficker. 'Me collision of the two conspiracies ?one the cops', the other the traffickers' makes for fairly good low comedy. It is all good knockabout stuff, but beneath the comic surface is a nasty underside of coercion and official bad faith that makes for unpleasant reading. Telling cops and robbers apart should be easier.

Batten's great merit is that he is able to explain whats going on. To call his prose anything other than pedestrian would be to glamorize it His slang leaves one wondering where he has spent the last three decades. Does anyone have a "dishy wife" any more?

The major problem isn't style but the total lack of context. The critical scrutiny the Canadian legal system is receiving is entirely absent in On Trial. Only the naive can believe that the inequities and inadequacies revealed by the Marshall inquiry are peculiar to Nova Scotia. Evidence of these shortcomings abounds throughout the country. Batten's chatty good?old?boy courtroom yarns won't allay doubters' fears.

On Trial is a limited and incurious book that achieves its narrow ends competently. Yet describing the play does not seem particularly useful when the theatre is burning down.


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