Last Word: Memoirs and Memories of Roy McMurtry

Author: Allan Q. Shipley Guest Blogger

I recently had the privilege of attending the book launch of Roy McMurtry’s Memoirs and Reflections and it has stirred up many memories of my own.

Most people in the legal world will be aware of at least some aspects of McMurtry’s legal career extending over 50 plus years; litigation lawyer, Attorney General of Ontario, High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Chief Justice of the Ontario Superior Court, and then Chief Justice of Ontario. But I have special memories of him from his years as Attorney General.

He was appointed Attorney General in September, 1975. In the spring of 1976, fresh out of the Bar Admission Course, with some trepidation I joined the Policy Development Division of the Ministry. I was anything but a Progressive Conservative party supporter, but having articled in the Division I knew there was at least a commitment to law reform in that Division. Still for me McMurtry was a yet unknown quantity. How quickly that changed!

Almost immediately he started on a path of unprecedented law reform with the Policy Development Division clearing the way. It didn’t hurt that the head of the Division was Archie Campbell (later Regional Senior Justice of the Ontario Superior Court) who had worked for McMurtry two summers while a high school student and had served six month of his articles with McMurtry. The other lawyers in the Division at that time were Karen Weiler (later Justice Weiler of the Ontario Court of Appeal), John Cavarzan and Craig Perkins (later both on the Ontario Superior Court) and the outstanding Steve Fram (See, Supreme Advocacy Letter, October 04, 2012 | Issue No. 59)

In his Memoirs McMurtry writes of overcoming his uncertainty about working with civil servants and his growing respect and reliance on them, to the point that he “announced an open-door policy- literally leaving the door ajar- to encourage staff to drop in to talk”. His open door extended to his own home where at the start of the holiday season he held a party for all of the lawyers from the 18 King Street head office. And in the days before recognition of the rights of common law spouses, not to mention gay spouses, the invitation included not only spouses but “significant others”.

His faith in the work of his legal staff was such that a year after my call to the bar I was given responsibility for the development of legislation to give equal legal status to children born outside marriage (Children’s Law Reform Act) thus I believe giving for the first time in Canada equal rights to so-called illegitimate children. Just two years later I was given the opportunity to expand the Children’s Law Reform Act to implement comprehensive reform of child custody law, which eventually came into effect in 1982.

Also, only 3 years after my call to the bar Attorney General McMurtry appointed me counsel to His Honour Senior Judge (later Justice) Lucien Beaulieu who was chairing the Task Force on Vandalism. With eminent criminologist Professor Anthony Doob, we produced Vandalism: Responses and Responsibilities, a 475-page report.

While responsibilities like these were amazing enough in themselves what made the work exceptional was the direct personal contact with him during projects like these. That “open- door” attitude extended even to junior lawyers such as me. Unlike Cabinet Ministers today, he did not surround himself with an office full of political advisors. Nor did he insist that briefings be done by senior civil service managers, with us juniors sitting in the wings. Briefings were direct and informal. How informal? Well, one time at his home in his bedroom when he was laid up with a bad back. A couple of times at breakfast at the Park Plaza. Most memorably, when I was commuting on a once-a-day GO train, it was he who ended the briefing saying, “Don’t you have to go to catch your train?”

And it was not unusual, after a job deemed well done, to receive a personal written note of thanks. And once, a bottle of wine.

As I said, he kept a very small office of personal staff. Whereas today the Ministry Communications Branch has over 20 staff, his office contained exactly one, the excellent David Allen. So, in the early days I was one of a small group of lawyers who were asked to help out with “speaking notes” for non-partisan topics, such as the role of the Attorney General, children’s rights, the responsibility of the legal profession to give back through community service and of course the importance of law reform. More often than not the speech contained a passage that we called the “Boast of Augustus”. Lord Brougham in a speech to the House of Commons in 1828 said:

It was the boast of Augustus that he found Rome of brick and left it of marble. But how much nobler will be our sovereign’s boast when he shall have it to say that he found law dear and left it cheap; found it a sealed book, left it a living letter; found it the patrimony of the rich, left it the inheritance of the poor; found it the two-edged sword of craft and oppression, left it the staff of honesty and the shield of innocence.

With an incredible record of having 59 statutes* enacted in 10 years and his 16 years on the bench, Roy McMurtry has outdone Augustus while remaining a humble servant of the law and with no need to boast.

(* On his retirement as Attorney General the Ministry’s Policy Division presented him with a leather bound volume called Law for the People , containing all 59 statutes)

Respectfully submitted.

[Ed. note: This article originally appeared in Supreme Advocacy Newsletter Nov. 28.]

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