Drama and Irony in a Canadian Courtroom?

With the nation riveted to news reports from a fraud, breach of trust and bribery trial in an Ottawa courtroom, Canada reaches a milestone in its legal history.  Behold, Canadians as mass spectators of our justice system “get” the role of dramatic irony, the narrative device used by playwrights to exploit the discrepancy between audience knowledge and that of one or more characters on stage.  It is, as we witness the dueling counsel, also used effectively by lawyers during the questioning of witnesses.

Some, especially those opposed to the party in government and its leader, are enjoying the moment.  Others, in an effort to make sense of the embattled senator’s defence strategy as much as the crimes of which he is accused, are getting a primer on the importance of irony as a technical concept in the study of narrative within the administration of justice.  Experienced trial lawyers are used to working with irony in the narrative of a client’s case, or as a means of impeaching an opponent’s.  Rare, however, is the opportunity for the public to see and be interested in irony at play within the workings of the law.

Here, the senator, charged with receiving improper expense reimbursements and accepting an inducement to make the inquiry go away, contends that he was following rules and accuses the prime minister’s office of trying to get him to accept wrongdoing when there was none.  The one offering the alleged inducement says it was not meant to be one, and indeed he is not charged with any crime.  The accused, perhaps counter-intuitively, maintains the payment was part of a cover-up in which he was a reluctant pawn. Commentators have wondered whether the two sides have reversed their roles, questioning why the prosecution’s witness characterized the payment as a ‘good deed’ and why the defence lawyer has tried to taint it with political intrigue.  To understand this apparent irony, one has to focus on the role of competing narratives within the case.

The evidence, hitherto private emails made available to the public through the open courts principle, are pored over by an army of journalists and citizens.  The prime minister, the extent of whose knowledge of events may affect his party’s re-election to government, is on record as coming clean to the public as soon as he learned of the payment to the senator.  As long as he did not know of the payment, if we follow the story, he can say he shared (and continues to share) Canadians’ outrage at the senator’s alleged misconduct.  Whatever the outcome of the trial and its effect on the fortunes of the protagonists, the conflict between the two former political friends is being resolved now, in court, over an issue of epistemology: the mechanism of knowledge acquisition.

In the original and most celebrated Western tragedy, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, the audience knows the Theban king’s life story, including his guilt as his predecessor’s murderer; but Oedipus does not.  The play becomes a trial of that murder, in which he is inquisitor and judge. Upon discovery of his guilt, justice is swift.  Aristotle, in his Poetics, called this “discovery” moment an excellent reversal of fortune.  For Northrop Frye, author of The Anatomy of Criticism, irony was an integral part of the mythos (story) of the hero’s downfall.  First, there is the dissimulation or lie.  Second, the ignorant hero, unaware of the consequences of the truth when it is revealed, pursues a course of conduct that will lead to its discovery.  Third, after the moment of discovery, justice is rendered.  In this way, tragedy and the judicial process share a common mechanism to determine the outcome.

Truth-seeking may be a worthwhile cause on its own, but the more important reason why we engage in it is that the truth can and often will lead to consequences.  In the more plodding, didactic and linear stories of the Middle Ages, God of course knew everything and all men were born into sin, so the “hero” always suffered the same demise.  The rediscovery of Greek tragedy and the concept of dramatic irony, what made Shakespearean tragedy avant garde in his day and scandalous to Puritans, transformed our understanding of the justice as dependent on knowledge and understanding, rather than inevitable mundane, economic or political courses of conduct.  Of course the backdrop of a Canadian federal election makes this a political trial, as much as revelations during the Gomery Inquiry brought about consequences – some say unfair – to the Martin Liberals.  But because it is, lest we forget, a judicial proceeding, the process of parties and lawyers pressing to advance their case toward judgment (their version of the Aristotelian “discovery” of truth leading to consequence) makes the events in Ottawa a study in competing levels of understanding that lies at the heart of justice itself.

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