Our Tribute to Roy McMurtry

R. Roy McMurtry (image credit: David Cooper / Toronto Star)

 “Legal Aid, and, in particular community law, is perhaps the single most important mechanism we have to make the equal rights dream a reality.” 

Former Ontario Chief Justice Roland Roy McMurtry

With much sadness, and with profound respect, the ACLCO pays tribute to Roland Roy McMurtry, who died on March 19, 2024, leaving an unparalleled legacy on justice, equality and democracy in Ontario.

Roy McMurtry’s accomplishments are legion and are being remembered by many throughout Canada. During his time as Ontario’s Attorney General, Roy McMurtry fought for equal rights, including French language rights in the courts. He was a steadfast advocate for human rights and worked to address issues faced by the Black community. As Attorney General, Roy McMurtry played a central and influential role in negotiating the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and patriating Canada’s constitution.

In addition to this legacy, community legal clinics will not soon forget that Roy McMurtry was, throughout his career, a champion of community law and its singular importance in making the “equal rights dream” a reality. He would often refer to fact that he created a community legal clinic system in Ontario as one of his proudest accomplishments of his political career

The former Chief Justice continued his commitment to equal rights by ensuring a robust network of community legal clinics charged with providing legal services for those with low incomes. Our enshrined system of community legal clinics is the envy of the progressive world, thanks to the vision of Roy McMurtry.

In 1997, while celebrating an important anniversary for community legal clinics, Roy McMurtry spoke about the success of clinics. He said: “The last twenty-five years have shown how the power of an idea – when matched with energy, determination, and community support – can make a crucial and enduring difference.” That idea was Roy McMurtry’s.

When challenged by some of his cabinet colleagues on the wisdom of funding a network of community legal clinics who help poor people pursue group interests, who would inevitably challenge the government in courts and tribunals, and who would fight against their proposed laws and policies, Roy McMurtry responded that this was the cost of a civilized society.

As Chair and then Chair Emeritus of the “Friends of the Community Clinics”, Roy McMurtry met frequently with representatives of the ACLCO Board of Directors and its executive director to provide his insight and invaluable advice on issues confronting the community legal clinic system.

Ontario’s community legal clinics and the communities they serve are forever grateful to Roy McMurtry and commit to continuing the work that he made possible in a manner that honours his distinguished legacy. We will also remember him as a true Friend who worked with us with warmth, generosity and camaraderie.

In 1983, Roy McMurtry wrote the following article in Ontario Lawyers Weekly. Forty years later, we thank him. And, we will miss him.

New challenges face profession in accountability, accessibility

By R. Roy McMurtry, Attorney General for Ontario (1983)

photo of an article from Ontario Lawyers Weekly, Special first anniversary edition, 1983

The anniversary issue of Ontario Lawyers Weekly gives me the opportunity to consider the achievement of the past year and the challenges we must face in the future. As social conditions change, our profession must strive to understand these challenges and acquire a greater accountability to the public whom we serve. I would like to reflect on three areas which are of particular concern to me as Attorney General: the need for greater public accountability, the need for more involvement in public legal education and finally, the need for greater accessibility to the legal system.

In retrospect, 1983 had been a very productive year in the Legislature for the administration of justice.

In addition, the Courts of Justice Act, which consolidates and modernizes the statutes dealing with the courts in Ontario, was introduced in the past year. The Act, which is the culmination of a number of years of hard work, provides the foundation for the new rules of practice and codifies the official status of the French language in the courts of Ontario.

These legislative changes would not have been possible without the excellent contribution of members of the judiciary and senior members of the Bar, which brings me to the first area I would like to discuss concerning the increasing need for the legal profession to become involved in the law-making process.

While dedicated individual practitioners have done much useful work on these laws, more involvement on the part of the profession as a whole is required to ensure that the laws meet the new social conditions and service the public they are meant to service.

The practice of law is more than a mere trade or business. It must always involve a strong element of public service. As members of the profession, we must assert that we do have a role to play beyond serving specific, often established, interests. The urge to serve the legal profession and the public when the opportunity is presented is an essential part of the character of any great lawyer.

The legal system exists to serve the public and not just the lawyers, judges or government. Sensitivity to the needs of the community is an absolute necessity. Our laws, whether legislated or judge-made, are changing constantly to meet new social conditions.

Lawyers must become involved in enacting these changes and strive to understand the implications which these changes will inevitably have upon their clients.

Our challenge is to serve our community so that the profession continues to earn public support and respect. Public confidence is obviously the best measure of the strength and integrity of our legal system. However, in order for the public to support the system, it must firstly understand it.

The need has never been greater for people trained in the law, who can communicate the importance of law to our social fabric. For our legal system to function properly, justice must not only be done but also must be seen to be done. And justice must necessarily be understood.

Finally, the process to demystify the law includes making it more accessible to the public it serves. Fair and just laws are of little comfort to a citizen who feels denied reasonable access to the legal process that should be available to every citizen.

I am not always sure that those members of the profession who have reached high levels of financial success, or who are en route to doing so, fully recognize the obligation placed on them, as members of the profession, to ensure that everyone has ready access to a full range of legal services.

There are many ways to ensure that access, including pro bono work and the acceptance of legal aid certificates. However, one particularly effective way in which all members of the profession could contribute to this critically important objective is to increase their support for the community legal aid clinics.

One of my proudest accomplishments during my more than eight-and-one-half years as Attorney General, is the development of a network of community legal aid clinics across the province.

The clinics discharge, with skill and dedication, a very substantial part of the entire profession’s obligation to serve the poor. It is now axiomatic that the poor are entitled to the same range of service as everyone else, including advice on how to pursue group interests, and assistance in doing so.

However, most members of the profession are neither trained nor equipped to handle this broader area of representation, and few have the expertise to provide economically even case-by-case representation in areas of poverty law like welfare benefits, workers’ compensation and landlord and tenant disputes.

By contrast, the clinics can and do take a full range of poverty law services directly to the poor. In so doing, they play a major role in bringing justice and the rule of law to the least powerful among us.

Regrettably, the clinics carry out this function with little perceptible support from the Bar. Do very many members of the profession fully appreciate the role and function of the clinics? How many members of the profession have visited a clinic, or talked to the lawyers who work in the clinics?

Frankly, I am troubled by the ease with which the profession has supported a dramatic increase in the legal aid tariff compared to its relative indifference about the clinics. In my view, both parts of the legal aid plan are of vital importance. Both deserve the wholehearted support of the profession. Both must grow together if the public interest is to be served.

Ontario Lawyers Weekly, Special First Anniversary Forum, 1983