Vol. 30, No.


www.lawyersweekly.ca August 20, 2010

The judiciary on TV?


A new Web-TV pilot hosted by a judge will focus on the interplay between relationships and family law PAGE 26

26 | August 20, 2010




Legal education for the masses from the Bench
Web-TV program hopes to get picked up by major network

Already a trailblazer as Canada’s first openly gay judge and the country’s — if not the world’s — first sitting judge to write a book about the family justice system for the general public, Ontario Justice Harvey Brownstone, of the North Toronto Family Court, is hoping to catch talk-show queen Oprah Winfrey’s attention with his latest venture. The 54-year-old, 15-year veteran of the Ontario Court of Justice and author of the 2009 Canadian best-seller Tug of War: A Judge’s Verdict on Separation, Custody Battles, and the Bitter Realities of Family Court, is the host of a new Web-TV program called, Family Matters (www.familymatterstv.com), which will focus on the “interplay between relationships and the justice system,” according to the website. “We’re going to tackle the real issues that we’re seeing in court every day that nobody otherwise talks about,” says Brownstone, who marks another first as the only active judge — perhaps on the planet — to host a talk show. His new gig resulted from an idea he first discussed in May 2009 with Nancy Kinney, the Victoria-based president and founder of AdviceScene Enterprises Inc., about creating a TV program on the Web devoted to law-related issues. Kinney, who holds a law degree from the University of Victoria but never practised law, had already tapped Brownstone to provide information on family law on her popular website, AdviceScene.com, which lists lawyers in Canada and the United States and has them sharing their legal expertise for free. Before approaching Brownstone, Kinney had floated her idea about an online show past two judges in British Columbia. “They didn’t even answer

my voice or email messages,” she recalls. “It takes a certain type of person who really gets how things are really changing now.” Enter Brownstone, who had already amassed a public profile as a result of widespread media attention and speaking engagements following the release of his book. He’s also a firm believer that judges — particularly those with the Family Court who are involved in an area of the law that impacts more people, especially children, than any other — have an educating role to play beyond the bench. “The hunger out there for basic information about all aspects of the justice system is huge.”

I want to be a positive ambassador for the court and want the court to be proud of me and see me as someone who is enhancing access to justice.


Besides, Brownstone always wanted to host his own talk show. “But I can’t be Harvey on the show, I have to be Judge Brownstone,” says the budding online star, who admits that “Harvey would be a little more compelling” in front of the cameras. “I don’t think there’s a need for a family-court version of Judge Judy. When you’re a sitting judge, you cannot compromise your neutrality and impartiality on any topic that might come before you in court, whether it involves a political issue or an individual case,” explains Brownstone. So unlike Judge Judy, who arbitrates disputes between parties paid to appear on the TV

show, Brownstone will neither render decisions nor offer personal opinions about anything. He will only ask questions and bring guests on the show “to enlighten and educate the public about a variety of issues regarding parenting and families and relationships.” As he explains: “I’m modeling myself after people like David Frost and Dick Cavett in doing indepth interviews to educate rather than someone like Dr. Phil, who offers therapy on his show.” “I am acutely aware that everything I do is a reflection of the judiciary. I want to be a positive ambassador for the court and want the court to be proud of me and see me as someone who is enhancing access to justice.” FamilyMattersTV.com already has a few episodes posted (that were taped at a rented studio in Toronto), including one on calculating child support (also available as a $15 DVD for law firms to give clients) and another featuring two lawyers (Katina Kavassalis and Dan Goldberg) from Ontario’s Office of the Children’s Lawyer — a government law office unique in the world. In the future, the show will look at such issues as Internet dating and how people “who are worlds apart physically…are hooking up,” sometimes resulting in a child, says Brownstone. Often, the unions fizzle out as quickly as they began and the adults return to the Net to begin another cyber-courtship. “The reason it matters to us in Family Court is that we’re seeing an explosion of mobility cases involving a person who came to Canada from another country and wants to go back with the child — and those are the most difficult cases we’re seeing,” explains Brownstone, who adds that he and his fellow Family Court judges are also witnessing a rise in people alleging immigration fraud.


Ontario Justice Harvey Brownstone on the set of “Family Matters” TV. “Someone claims to have fallen in love over the Internet with somebody who just wanted to get to Canada, and as soon as they get residency, they’re gone.” “This stuff is making a huge impact in Family Court.” He also plans to address the problem of online addictions where people are spending countless hours surfing the Web for porn or gambling, and sacrificing, if not losing, their families, finances and even jobs as a result. It won’t be all about Internetrelated subjects, though. Episodes are planned to look at adoption, parenting after separation and divorce, grandparent’s rights, multicultural relationships, young criminal justice and mental health issues, substance abuse, and what happens to pets following a breakup (Brownstone’s veterinarian-husband will appear on the show) — to name a few topics. Kinney has even bigger plans for the series, and hopes to attract celebrities as guests, such as actor Alec Baldwin, who wrote a book on parental alienation, former TV talk-show host Rosie O’Donnell, on her same-sex marriage and adoptions, comedy-legend Carol Burnett, on losing her daughter to cancer, Canadian songstress Anne Murray, about her daughter’s anorexia nervosa, and former U.S. vice-president Al Gore on late-life divorce in light of the end of his 40-year marriage to wife Tipper. Ultimately, Brownstone believes the show will be “a natural fit for Oprah.” Certainly, he wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to appear as a guest on her talk show. But he thinks that Family Matters would be “right up the alley” for the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), which is big on programming focused on relationships. “If Oprah was interested in him, he would have to think seriously about leaving the bench because the show would change drastically and a network would pay him enough that he wouldn’t need his day job,” says Kinney, who serves as co-producer of Family Matters. She plans to approach the major TV networks in Canada and the U.S., including OWN, with the hope that one will agree to broadcast the series which, as Brownstone points out, deals with issues that are generic enough to have relevance for either Canadian or American television viewers. If the show is professionally presented, it’s “not impossible” for Family Matters to end up on the small screen, according to the former president of the Barreau du Québec, who last year helped launch the province’s first legalinformation TV series, “Le Droit de Savoir” (The Right to Know), on both the French-language public educational network, Télé-Québec, and the French-language cable station, Canal Savoir. “We have to inform people



August 20, 2010 | 27



Behind the scenes with Justice Brownstone. about the law, and if you give information to people in a TV program, they will watch it,” says Michel Doyon, who practises business law with the Quebec City firm, Gagné Letarte SENCRL and whose dream is for Le Droit de Savoir to also become a daily Internet show. Before Brownstone hits the big time, his status as a sitting judge limits what he can do on the show, says Kinney. “He can’t get into certain topics [political issues] or interview certain people [litigants with active cases], and can’t have certain sponsors [no law firms that litigate at the North Toronto Family Court or litigants with pending cases in any court] on the show.” While Brownstone has complete control over the show — from signing off on the set to the content — he’s not involved in the marketing or advertising. Kinney handles the latter, and has acquired such corporate sponsors as Victoria law firm, Dinnin Hunter Lambert & Jackson, who paid $5,000 to have its name and a link posted on FamilyMattersTV.com. The online venture is also offering businesses or law firms 10 major sponsorship spots, each available for $60,000 a year, which includes a 30-second commercial on every episode for one year. Brownstone also doesn’t get paid to do the show. As he did with his book, in giving all of the royalties to The Children’s Wish Foundation of Canada, the Toronto judge has directed that 25 per cent of the revenue from Family Matters go to the same charity. “He’s not receiving anything from the show — and actually, neither am I,” laughs Kinney, who coowns a hotel with her husband, Bill, along with real estate properties on the West Coast. For now, Family Matters is a labour of love, with costs kept at a minimum for a show Kinney estimates runs well below

Toronto articling student Omar Ha-Redeye (right), acted as a production assistant on Justice Brownstone’s show. $10,000 per episode. In fact, her husband even volunteered to build the set at Island Industrial Fx, a digital-film production facility in Victoria, whose owner, Simon Game, is the show’s director and other co-producer. “This is a very, very highquality production,” bubbles Brownstone. “When they told me this was going to be an Internet show, I thought it would be on a webcam or some hand-held digital thing. But oh no, this is a three-camera studio production with proper lighting and sound, makeup, and a 25-person crew — the whole bit!” In mid-July, Brownstone spent two days taping six one-hour pilot episodes covering such topics as collaborative law, mediation, “how to make the best use of your lawyer,” elder abuse, child neglect and abuse, and prenuptial agreements. The plan is to post between two and three new episodes per month. Expenses were further reduced since Brownstone and the nonVictoria-based guests (two Saskatchewan family lawyers, Greg Walen, and Gwen Goebel) were in the British Columbia capital attending the Federation of Law Societies of Canada’s 2010 national family law conference, where Brownstone delivered the closing keynote address and unveiled the trailer for Family Matters, which drew a two-minute standing ovation. The show also had a studio audience — 50 people per episode — during its recent round of tapings. While audience members couldn’t ask questions during the show, they could do so during breaks — and anyone surfing the Web was also free to send theirs in by e-mail or Skype in advance. But Brownstone got to choose which questions he would use on the show. “I don’t want to take a chance that something gets said — including by me — that was inappropriate. That’s why the show is not live,” he explains, adding that he also has the final say over the edited program. “If I happen to say something inappropriate, we can cut it out. That’s the only way I will ever get other judges to come on the show if they have that guarantee to approve the final cut.” And other judges will appear as guests on Family Matters, including his Ontario Court of Justice colleagues Stanley Sherr, who will discuss spousal support, and Robert Spence, who will talk about case management and what to expect in family court. “I don’t expect the show is going to be like Oprah’s or Ellen’s, but I really do think it will be immensely helpful to people and I will try to make it interesting and compelling,” says Brownstone. Toronto articling student Omar Ha-Redeye, who acted as a production assistant on the show, has been plugging Family Matters on several websites, including his own (www.omarharedeye.com), and believes Brownstone will do well as a talk-show host. “He has the personality — he is quite charismatic and interesting. Anyone who knows Justice Harvey Brownstone in a social situation knows how entertaining he is generally,” says 31-year-old Ha-Redeye, who worked in public relations prior to studying law at the University of Western Ontario. “More importantly, getting information on family law issues from a judge doesn’t get any more credible than that.” It also helps when your colleagues support you. At its annual Canadian Legal Conference, to be held in Niagara Falls, Ont. next month, the Canadian Bar Association will honour Brownstone with the “Colleague in the Spotlight” award. It appears that Judge Harvey is ready for his close-up. Episodes of Family Matters can be seen at www.familymatterstv.com and at www.blip.tv.w 

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