When described as high profile, Joel Pink sighs conspicuously.
“It’s my clients who are high profile, not me,” he says. “If you represent a number of these people, the public infer that you’re also high profile because they follow the cases and they associate you with your clients.”
After practising law for 50 years, mostly as a defence attorney, Pink has acquired a degree of local notoriety that is rare in his profession.
In 2018, he defended Christopher Garnier, who was on trial for murdering off-duty Truro police officer Catharine Campbell. Almost immediately after, he was in P.E.I. defending Roger Jabbour, the prominent band teacher accused of abusing students.
Pink’s used to debating energetically and projecting his voice across courtrooms. His speech is informal but precise, and he punctuates his sentences with a refrain of “OK?” Describing a recent and particularly hectic month, he proclaims “But that’s done now,” and makes a sweeping hand gesture, clearing the table for the next topic.
It runs in the family. His father was a lawyer in Yarmouth. He recalls sitting in on his father’s court cases, and the two of them visiting the local jail to bail out clients who had been arrested for drunk driving.
“When I first graduated, I was going to do admiralty law because that’s what my father thought I should do: the law of the sea,” he says. “Nova Scotia being a fishing community, he thought that’s where I should be.”
It was not until several years later that Pink asked a colleague for permission to join a client’s defence team and learn the nuances of criminal law.
When that colleague, Angus MacDonald, eventually fell ill, Pink temporarily took over his practice. Four years later in 1973, MacDonald became a judge on the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal and Pink replaced him permanently.
In the early 1980s, a teenage Christine Driscoll watched a manslaughter trial with her high-school law class. Pink was the defence attorney. “I remember watching that trial and it sparked my interest,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”
She would go on to become a Crown attorney for Halifax, and last year scored a heavily publicized victory in the Christopher Garnier trial.
However contentious a case might become, though, she says that Pink remains scrupulously professional: “The best thing about arguing against Joel is that we do our jobs in court, and when you leave the courtroom, it’s all left behind. Everyone forgets about it, and everything’s civilized and friendly.”
Ronald Pink, another of the 13 lawyers in the Pink family, echoes Driscoll’s description.
“It’s a religion, in some respects,” Ronald says. “Joel will work day and night. Weekends, Saturdays, Sundays mean nothing to him. He’ll outwork every other lawyer, including the crown, and that’s why he’s so successful.”
When Joel vacations in Florida, Ronald says, he ships six bankers boxes of documents with him and works on his clients’ cases every day until he returns home.
Now in his seventies and affiliated with Ronald’s law firm, Pink Larkin, his enthusiasm for litigation is undampened. Describing the process of attending court, he makes it sound less like mere work and more like a pleasant challenge: “I enjoy dealing with the Crown attorneys. I enjoy dealing with the judges. Some of the judges were my students when I taught law school.”
He even has specific courthouses he prefers: “It’s a pleasure to go to court in Port Hawkesbury. It’s a pleasure to go to court in Bridgewater or Yarmouth because the facilities are beautiful,” he says. “But not Halifax. And Dartmouth, personally, I find is a disgrace.”
And nor is his enjoyment of his court-time one-sided. Former P.E.I. Crown attorney Valerie Moore describes Pink as a pleasure to argue against. She recalls him being uncommonly well prepared.
“The first time I had a case against him would have started around the year 2000. I must confess I was intimidated to hear that he had been retained,” she laughs. “From very early on in the case, you could see that he had a very clear idea of where he was going. He could be devastating in his cross-examinations. From the moment he got up, you would sit there and watch because you knew it was going somewhere.”
She won that case (the manslaughter trial of bar owner Randy Crosby for punching and killing patron Niall Lucock) but Pink successfully appealled the conviction.
While peers like Moore recall his relish for courtroom jousting, Pink says there’s more to his passion than that. “I love dealing with people. I love trying to solve problems. It’s the helping people who are in trouble,” he says.
And helping often means standing up for clients accused of heinous crimes. “As an attorney, I believe in the three basic principles of law, which are the presumption of innocence, the burden of proof, and proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” he explains.
Even if one of his clients has committed a crime, the responsibility for proving their guilt still falls to the Crown. “Those basic principles are the foundation of our criminal justice system,” Pink says. “If you can’t accept them, then you don’t understand what the criminal justice system is all about.”
But that defence still stays within his professional ethics and personal morals. “I emphasize to my clients that we defence attorneys are not miracle workers,” he says. “We don’t pull rabbits out of hats. We basically have to work with the facts that are given to us.”
It also means that there are certain steps that Pink won’t take. If a client confesses to him, but then asks to be put on the witness stand to protest their innocence, the law requires him to refuse. To do otherwise would be to help his client commit perjury.
Likewise, he refuses to represent anyone accused of murdering an on-duty police officer. His close working relationship with law enforcement makes the prospect unpalatable. (Catherine Campbell, the Truro police constable Christopher Garnier was convicted of killing, was off-duty when she died.)
Pink sees educating people about the legal system as one of his duties.
“One of the biggest problems that I see is a lack of understanding about what the criminal justice system is all about,” he says.
Over his five-decade career, he has watched the processes of justice evolve. “There’s restorative justice, which is all new, in order to cut down the court time,” he says. “And if we get [defendants] to go through restorative justice and they come out of it, the criminal charges are withdrawn. And we now have the mental-health court, which I think is a wonderful court.”
But Pink warns that the courts in Nova Scotia are worryingly overcrowded, with the wheels of justice slowing to a crawl. “I think right now the justice system is busting at its seams,” he says. “You go before the provincial court, you’re lucky to get a trial date almost before next year.”
The workload faced by prosecutors and judges, Pink says, is untenable: “This morning, I was in the intake court, and the Crown attorney comes in with his cart and five transfer boxes. I asked him, ‘Did you read all that stuff?’ He says, ‘All I can do is my best’ … The only solution is, you need more judges, more courtrooms, and more Crown attorneys.”
And what can the average person do? Stay out of the system.
“Think twice before you act,” Pink says. “If you become involved with the criminal justice system, it could affect your life not only today and tomorrow, but 15 years down the road.”