George Biggar has built a career around public service, helping protect the legal rights of the less fortunate in several roles with Ontario’s Legal Aid Plan.
His contribution is perhaps best stated in an announcement from the Law Society of Upper Canada, which later this year will honour Biggar with the Law Society Medal: “A passionate advocate for the right of low-income Ontarians to access to the justice system, his work has helped define how legal aid is delivered in Canada.”
Biggar’s social conscience was formed during his upbringing in Toronto, where his father James taught history at Upper Canada College, a prestigious private school for boys. Biggar remembers his father’s passion for public service, and notes that for several generations his family has prioritized giving back to its community.
James was a housemaster at UCC, which made for a “peculiar upbringing,” Biggar admits, as the family lived on the school grounds at St. Clair Avenue and Avenue Road.
“It was quite a sheltered little enclave,” he says. “I grew up thinking that Forest Hill was sort of normal - of course it’s not, at all.”
Biggar benefitted from one of the perks for teachers at the school, whose sons could attend, free of charge. So from the ages of nine to 17, he attended the school and received a “very good, solid academic education,” he says. “It was very academically competitive.”
Biggar used that educational grounding at the University of Toronto, where he graduated with a degree in political science and economics in 1966.
“I really didn’t know quite what to do with myself” after that, he says. Law school seemed like an opportunity to work in the area of public policy, so he enrolled at the same university’s law faculty. He chuckles, remarking that at that time the U of T law faculty was a relative breeze to get into compared to current standards.
His affinity for public policy, he says, took root through his involvement with a group called the Village Bar, which was spearheaded by writer and social activist June Callwood and Toronto lawyers Clayton Ruby and Paul Copeland.
“I fell in with that group of people, who were interested in the counter-culture,” says Biggar. “As a lot of kids who go to private schools, you sometimes come out a little rebellious.
Those schools can be quite authoritarian; some people come out - and I did - kind of anti-authority. I had a pretty good anti-authority streak in me.” His interest in public policy also led to his election to the student council at the University of Toronto, while in law school.
But after graduating, Biggar wasn’t keen on practising. He worked for the student council at Ryerson University, where efforts were made to organize the student body into a “more cohesive community,” he says. He admits that effort ended up being divisive, but says the experience “was quite exciting.”
The profession called him back, however, and he went on to article at a firm called Fisher and Holness, a small Bay Street firm at the time with offices in the Simpson Tower. Biggar worked for Stewart Fisher, who he praises as, “A wonderful guy with a big social conscience.”
Fisher, who went on to become a provincial court judge, did not have much of an affinity for the technical side of the profession, recalls Biggar. He called on Biggar to deal with a swath of divorce cases he was unable to handle.
“I had to learn the rules of civil procedure and get them all back on the road,” he says.
“But he was great to article for.”
Biggar then struck out on his own, sharing space with Copeland and others. He focused on criminal and family law in loose association with various lawyers over the years.
He also got involved with the Law Union of Ontario, which Ruby and Copeland founded in the late 1960s. In the early 1970s, Biggar was involved with a group that refounded the law union.
He spent about 15 years in his practice, which was roughly half consumed by legal aid cases.
By the early 1980s, Biggar and his wife Mary Cornish - partner at Toronto’s Cavalluzzo Hayes Shilton McIntyre & Cornish LLP - were parenting their son and daughter. At that time, Cornish was developing a vibrant, but demanding practice in the areas of labour law, human rights, and pay equity.
“When the children came along, it seemed more convenient for me to be able to get home at 6 [p.m.],” says Biggar.
An opportunity in the public sector came up at the Ontario Legal Aid Plan, and in 1984 he became a deputy legal accounts officer.
“I felt much more useful at legal aid,” he says. “You could do things here. We were a small enough organization that it was possible to make a difference.”
Biggar also says he has always been attracted to the work legal aid does. While the organization is generally lumped into the access-to-justice pool, Biggar suggests its deeper role is to protect fairness in society.
“Legal aid is really in the rule-of-law business - that’s really what we do,” he says.
“Access to justice is the more popular, friendly way to say it, but that’s what we really are doing, is trying to make sure that the rule of law is operating, and operates fairly in the courts. And so that particularly, people who haven’t been the lucky recipients of normal resources, whether personal or financial, have a fair chance.”
So Biggar considered legal aid a “tremendous opportunity,” although a swift departure from the life of a litigation lawyer. “You have to get along with people, whereas being in the courts, you have to fight like crazy,” he says.
He gradually added administration to his skill set, and moved up the ladder at legal aid. He became deputy director of legal in 1989, where he basically served as the organization’s chief legal operating officer, taking the lead on the certificate and duty counsel files.
Biggar weathered legal aid’s crisis in the 1990s, when the organization ran out of money due to an economic recession (Biggar notes that “legal aid tends to run out of money in recessions because the number of people eligible goes up”). He came out of it as vice president of legal services at Legal Aid Ontario.
He took on a role in charge of policy planning and external relations, which allowed him to focus on his desire to push for change.
“I’ve had a terrific career,” says Biggar, currently special advisor to LAO president and CEO Bob Ward.
“I came to legal aid in 1984 and I’ll retire next year after 25 years. It’s different; it’s a career in the public service, so it’s not your normal lawyer path. But it’s been very rewarding and I’ve felt very useful. Both in terms of the individuals here I was able to help and the policies we’ve developed.”
Biggar adds that, “There are a lot of different ways of being a lawyer. Being in the public service is tremendously gratifying. One can feel useful and constructive, and we are, as lawyers in the public service, not badly compensated - certainly I don’t have any complaints.”
This is the third in our series focusing on recipients of the LSUC awards honouring the best of the profession. To watch a video of the interview please click here.