Marie Henein
Marie Henein. Photo: Henein / Hutchison

Get it out of the way first. I do believe those women who came forward to accuse former CBC host Jian Ghomeshi of sexually assaulting them. And I salute their courage in doing so.

That said, I don’t agree with those who want to silence Ghomeshi’s lawyer, Marie Henein, for the crime of having done her own very important job in the criminal justice system so successfully.

Some context. Four Canadian liberal arts universities — Bishop’s, Mount Allison, Acadia, and St. Francis Xavier — recently banded together under the umbrella of something called the Maple League of Universities to promote themselves by — among other initiatives —  staging public lectures, live at one university and live-streamed at the others. Speakers include former Prime Minister Paul Martin, novelist Joseph Boyden, Nobel-prize-winning scientist Art McDonald, Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner-Senator Murray Sinclair and… lawyer Marie Henein.

Choosing Henein — ironically, the only woman among the listed speakers — has aroused the ire of some women’s advocates, including especially at St. F.X.

“You might remember Henein from last winter’s Jian Ghomeshi trial,” women and gender studies major Jasmine Cormier wrote in a November 17 column for the Xaverian Weekly. “Henein tore apart Ghomeshi’s victims/accusers using victim blaming and manipulative tactics in order to allow Ghomeshi to walk free.”

While acknowledging “universities are an important place to have conversations,” Cormier was quick to add they shouldn’t include Henein. “In all fairness to everyone at this university, the safety of students at this school comes first and foremost, and is more important than hosting a woman who has spent her career contesting women who are possible victims of sexual assault.”

The danger in having conversations about sexual assault and how it should be dealt with in the criminal justice system without someone like Henein involved is that such a discussion becomes insular and circular, and gets us nowhere.

Marie Henein is a smart, ambitious, tough woman. She decided to be a criminal lawyer while she was still in junior high school. She not only became that lawyer but also made herself into a brilliant courtroom tactician and performer. Another of her high-profile clients and someone who should know, the former attorney general of Ontario, has called her “the best criminal lawyer in the country.” She is routinely lauded by other women in her profession as a mentor and role model for young female lawyers. And she is a compassionate — as well as passionate — advocate, helping create an Ontario organization that provides pro bono legal assistance to prisoners who’ve run out of legal options, including many “aboriginal people or those battling mental health issues.”

That she is also now best known as the much vilified lawyer of the even more vilified Ghomeshi only shows that none of us is just one, uncomplicated person.

It is not Henein’s fault the Ghomeshi case didn’t turn out the way many of us believed it should.

Given that the specific allegations of sexual assault against Ghomeshi were not reported to police immediately — understandable — and that the case therefore inevitably came down to she said/he didn’t, it was clear questions about the women’s interactions with Ghomeshi before and after those alleged assaults would become relevant to determining credibility.

We know sexual abuse victims do sometimes continue to be in contact — and even make nice — with their abusers. If Ghomeshi’s accusers’ subsequent “friendly” contacts with him had been brought out by the crown and explained during the women’s initial direct testimony instead of through Henein’s out-of-nowhere disclosure followed by her withering cross examination, the legal result might have been different.

But that’s not Henein’s fault.

Did the crown not ask the women about any contacts they’d had with Ghomeshi after their assaults, including through easily traceable emails and social media? Did they ask, and the women not tell them? We don’t know the answers to those questions, but we do know that, by raising them first and then skillfully employing them to create a counter-narrative, Henein was simply doing her job on behalf of her client. And doing it well.

That said, the Ghomeshi case does raise important, difficult larger questions. How can the rights of accusers and those accused in sexual assault cases be best protected in the courtroom? Is our currently constructed legal system the fairest — or only way — to handle allegations of sexual assault? What better ways are there?

Those are questions that require honest, open conversations. Including, perhaps especially, with people like Marie Henein.

Stephen Kimber

Stephen Kimber is an award-winning writer, editor, broadcaster, and educator. A journalist for more than 50 years whose work has appeared in most Canadian newspapers and magazines, he is the author of...

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  1. Good column, Stephen. You’re absolutely correct in that it’s possible to believe and support the victims of this crime, while also acknowledging that the defense attorney is not a heinous monster who should be vilified for crimes against humanity. We can only grow as a society if we continue to listen to all sides of a argument, and if we use knowledge and information to better ourselves and our governing systems. If we continually shut out people like Henein because we don’t like what they do for a living, we’re only going to stunt our own growth. We may not like her personally, or we may not like some of the clients that she’s taken on, or the things that she’s done in defense of those clients, but that doesn’t negate the important contribution that she can make to our legal system and our community. Life isn’t black and white.

  2. I propose that all criminal cases start in social media, where the public can determine the quality of someone’s defence based on available information. From this, we can derive their probable guilt quotient (PGQ). For example, a PGQ of 100 would mean the accused is almost certainly guilty and would be restricted to low-quality lawyers, thus assuring conviction. A PGQ of 50 would permit you a so-so lawyer, and a number below 20 would entitle you to hire any lawyer you can afford. No doubt, professional scoffers will challenge this idea. I would remind them that neither the courts nor Facebook has ever been wrong.

  3. Kimber’s closing two sentences say what needs to be said. The article is well written and the viewpoint is supportive of leaving vilification for other venues (should anyone wish to bother) and supportive of advancing the common cause of understanding relationships and what consequences they bring. This is as much a sociological discussion as a legal one. The discussion could be helpful to so many.

    1. Yeah absolutely. If Kimberly reduced his article to the last two sentences, this wouldn’t be a bad article at all.

  4. So you believe the women… so that means an injustice took place because he wasn’t convicted, but she was “just doing her job.”
    You could say that about OJ Simpson’s lawyers.
    The fact remains that an injustice was done, and you agree.
    So, why would I want to learn from someone who was “just doing their job” and doing it well, but because of that job well done, an injustice took place with regard to an incredibly sensitive subject.
    I used to love hearing Ghomeshi on the radio. I was shocked by the entire investigation. I cannot imagine it was easy for the victims to come forward publicly and speak out against someone who was so loved by the public, realizing they would face the full wrath of his money and power, face a public who might side with him (in the beginning I believe they did just that), but also face public embarrassment and shame and all of the emotions that go along with sexual assault.
    I respect people who do their jobs well, and I agree she’s obviously a star defence lawyer. But, I simply don’t want to hear how Henein got Ghomeshi off the hook by discrediting his victims. Nor do I want to think about that while she’s talking about something else. I agree, it’s not her “fault”- it’s the “fault” of our system, but this is not justice and I’m not going to pretend to admire someone for an injustice. Not today.

  5. This is a good article, but I disagree that “doing their job” is a good reason to be okay with someone defending a man who, by the accounts of many women, is sexually violent.

    Many unethical deeds have been committed by people who were just doing their job. Just because it’s her job doesn’t mean she should be exempt from criticism, no matter how smart, ambitious and tough she is.

    Also, and correct me if I’m wrong, she didn’t have to take this particular job. And it presumably paid very well. Marie chose to be paid a lot of money to legally defend a man who was accused by multiple women of sexual assault, and any university is free to choose to have her or not have her as a speaking guest based on that choice.

    I imagine there are plenty of women lawyers available to speak who didn’t defend Jian Ghomeshi. I also imagine they’re just as qualified to have honest, open conversations about how our legal system has failed victims of sexual assault. It strikes me as somewhat perverse to insist that the lawyer who “tore apart” alleged victims of sexual assault should be regarded as an especially valuable voice in the conversation on how to improve the law’s handling of such cases.

  6. Marie Henein is a lawyer who did her job by getting her client acquitted. That was her job, as it is the job of all criminal defense lawyers.

    1. I don’t usually read comments under articles – except publications like Rabble and Halifax Examiner, because they tend to be civil and well reasoned – but it might be instructive if Mr. McGrath read the comments under the Rabble piece he just referenced. Yes, the Crown failed completely. I couldn’t help wondering as I followed the Ghomeshi trial why the Crown kept getting blindsided. Didn’t they ask to review the e-mails. Didn’t they ask about any ongoing relationship with Ghomeshi? Did they not realize they were going up against one of the best defense lawyers in the country?

      Instead of lamenting the fact that Ghomeshi had the best defense money could buy, perhaps we could discuss how to get a better criminal justice system for indigenous people, people of colour and other marginalized citizens. Thanks Stephen for another thought provoking article.

      1. If all you got out of the rabble article was the comments section, there’s not much left to say here. My issue is about ethics, not winning at all costs.

        Of the three articles from Kimber here so far, they have not been worth paying for.

    2. Excellent piece. I hadn’t come across it before, despite it being from April and my following Rabble. Hard to keep up sometimes. Thanks for adding this pov to the post.