Nova Scotia's top court rebukes provincial court judge

Nova Scotia's highest court has delivered a stinging rebuke to a provincial court judge, the second time it has done so for Judge Alain Begin.

In a decision just released, the Court of Appeal attacked Begin's handling of a sexual assault case.

"In this case, the trial judge engaged in conduct so offensive to societal notions of fair play that to continue with the proceeding would be harmful to the integrity of the judicial system," Justice David Farrar wrote on behalf of the three-member appeal panel.

The case involves Tristian Nevin, who was accused of sexual assault and three counts of sexual interference. Begin convicted Nevin on all four charges on Dec. 10, 2021.

The allegations against Begin centre around his handling of Nevin's sentencing, which included a sentencing circle.

Nevin went through three different lawyers during the course of this proceeding. One of those lawyers was Jeremiah Raining Bird, who at one point requested that the sentencing circle be adjourned.

In its decision, the Court of Appeal described Begin's response to the request as "shocked, pissed off, and outraged."

The court went on to note that "[t]he trial judge's outrage is difficult to understand considering he had previously, on at least two occasions, scheduled the sentencing circle and the sentencing on different dates."

Nevin's lawyers asked Begin to recuse himself from the case, alleging that the judge had shown bias against their client.

'A reasonable apprehension of bias'

At the recusal hearing, Begin took the highly unusual step of calling his own witnesses to provide what he described as a factual foundation to refute the "baseless" allegations against him. Begin did the direct examination of the two witnesses, who were employees of the Mi'kmaw Legal Support Network. During the recusal hearing, the Court of Appeal noted, Begin criticized Raining Bird's handling of the case, saying he was unprepared from start to finish.

"The trial judge's allegations about Mr. Raining Bird's conduct were inappropriate and undermined the integrity of the appellant's defence," Farrar wrote.

"They created a reasonable apprehension of bias."

The Court of Appeal noted that a new trial would normally be ordered in such cases. But in this case, it said a stay of proceedings was appropriate to protect the integrity of the justice system.

This is the second time in the past few months that the Court of Appeal has criticized Begin's handling of a sexual assault case. The first occurrence, in November of last year, has been referred to a Judicial Council for review.