Early in his legal career, John VanDuzer was appointed a judge, a bestowing of authority that he accepted humbly and used wisely throughout his 36 years on the bench.
“He was very, very sensitive to the needs of other people,” explains Joan VanDuzer, John’s widow. “He wasn’t caught up in the structure of the system. He always said he was in the service industry, which is quite unusual.”
Together with Judge David Steinberg, John VanDuzer is credited with the creation of Hamilton’s Unified Family Court in 1977, a pilot project that brought together in one courthouse all cases involving marriage breakdown, child custody and access, domestic violence and youthful offenders. The model has since been adopted throughout Canada.
John was a strong advocate of mediation and alternative dispute resolution and believed it was better for families to work out their problems without resorting to a trial. A true collaborator, he was inspired by the interdisciplinary knowledge and perspective of groups such as the US-based Association of Family and Conciliation Courts, of which he became the first Canadian president.
“He had a lovely sense of humour and could always take the edge off any battle,” Joan says. “It’s easy to follow the letter of the law and forget the human quality, but I think sometimes he tried to figure out how to make the law fit the person instead of the other way around.”
In 1992 John was 65 and became “supernumerary,” which meant a reduced work load. At a gala retirement dinner, it was announced that a fund was established in his name at Hamilton Community Foundation to support students in family law.
When John knew the end was near, during his illness in the fall of 2005, it was an obvious choice for him to ask Joan that ‘in memoriam’ donations be made to the John E. VanDuzer Fund at HCF. “In the cards and notes I received after John’s passing, many people commented on his huge respect for other people,” Joan says. “He was considered a gentleman in the fullest sense of the word. We hope with this fund we can further John’s interest in mediation and family law.”
Excerpt from 2005-2006 Annual Report