With the passing of Ontario Court of Appeal Justice Stephen Borins, the province has lost a “jurisprudential strategic thinker” who had a rare knack for considering the long-term implications of his decisions, says Ontario Chief Justice Warren Winkler.
“He was a very good writer, and he wrote a number of leading decisions,” Winkler tells Law Times. “He was very creative in that respect, and he was really a deep thinker.”
Winkler notes that Borins had a “huge repertoire of practical experience” as a lawyer, judge, and professor of law. That diversity rubbed off on his writings.
“When you read what he wrote, it always resounded that it was practical and that he knew what he was talking about in the judicial system, which is always a very good thing. So although he was academic, he was very practical, and he was a very good writer.”
Borins, 74, previously battled cancer, says Winkler, but the disease had gone into remission. The judge returned to the court, but about a month before his June 13 death, the cancer returned in the form of leukemia, he says.
“It came back very quickly,” says Winkler, who adds that Borins’ passing will not hamper any ongoing cases he was involved with. “It just was very sudden, and very tragic.”
Borins was born in Toronto on Oct. 3, 1934. He received his law degree from the University of Toronto in 1959, and was called to the bar in 1961. After clerking for Chief Justice of the High Court of Ontario James McRuer from 1961 to 1962, he practised with the firm Croll Borins & Shiff from 1962 to 1969.
He moved on to become an associate professor at Osgoode Hall Law School from 1969 to 1975, and served as associate dean from 1972 to 1975.
Among a long list of other accomplishments and activities in the profession, Borins was a Law Society of Upper Canada bencher from 1971 to 1975 and co-counsel to the Royal Commission Inquiry into Civil Rights from 1965 to 1971. From 1976 to 1990, he was a part-time faculty member of Osgoode and the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law.
Borins was appointed to the County Court of Ontario in 1975, named a deputy judge of the Supreme Court of the Yukon Territory in 1982, appointed to the District Court of Ontario in 1985, Ontario Court of Justice (General Division) in 1990, and the Ontario Court of Appeal in 1997.
Winkler refers to Borins as a “jurisprudential strategic thinker” who took a long-term view of his decisions.
“He thought through to where this legal conclusion that he was writing about was going to take the administration of justice,” he says.
Winkler notes that Borins was his team leader when Winkler was first appointed to the court. The pair had met decades before that, however, with Borins often referring work to Winkler when he was a practising lawyer. The pair often had lunch together in downtown Toronto, frequently chatting about personal matters. “We had a very warm relationship,” he says.
The chief judge recalls the atmosphere Borins created while working in his Court of Appeal office.
“It was something to see. You’d walk by his office, he’d be sitting in there writing something, and he’d have CBC Two on the radio, listening to classical music. So here’d be this lovely music, Steve Borins sitting there writing something, and I’d go in and sit down.
He’d turn around, big grin on his face, and then he was a great conversationalist and he could talk about everything under the sun,” says Winkler, later adding, “It was so calm in there.”
The chief judge also recalls how well-rounded Borins was.
“He’d talk about books that he’d read about politics, about world affairs, about Israel; then he’d talk about sports - he liked to watch sports on TV. He and I shared all these interests.”
One of Borins’ most memorable attributes, says Winkler, was his enormous devotion to his family. “He talked about his family all the time,” he says. “He had this huge commitment and devotion to his family.”
Borins was also an extremely warm person, noted Winkler, pointing out how he knew every judge of the Superior Court and Court of Appeal by their first name.
“Everybody had that reaction to him: he had that constant big grin, and knew everybody by their first name,” says Winkler. “He was just a friendly, warm guy, and because he had this huge range of interests, he could talk to everybody about something.”
Borins’ inspiration in the profession, says Winkler, was his father Norman Borins. He was a prominent Toronto lawyer, and the pair practised together following Stephen’s call to the bar.
Former Ontario chief justice Roy McMurtry, now counsel at Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP, led the Court of Appeal when Borins arrived. The pair had been friends for decades through connections within the legal community.
“Steve had a richly deserved record for being a legal scholar,” says McMurtry, who describes Borins as a “very thorough, very precise” judge.
“He left a very important legacy of jurisprudence,” he says.
The court has lost “a very good judge and a very loyal colleague,” says McMurtry.
Toronto lawyer Morris Manning appeared before Borins, and he fondly recalls the judge’s approach from the bench.
“He treated counsel with dignity and fairness, and even when some of the counsel were not as well-prepared as they should have been, he never had a harsh word - he was a very kind man,” says Manning. “He was a very solid judge. He didn’t fall on one side or the other.
He wasn’t one of those that when you read his name on the list of the court that you knew exactly where he was going. He was a very strong, academic judge, but not an unrealistic one. He had a good worldview, I think. He is going to be missed.”
Possibly one of Borins’ most prescient decisions came in the 1996 Court of Appeal ruling in R. v. Mullins-Johnson. Borins dissented from his fellow judges at the appeal court, ruling that William Mullins-Johnson - who had been convicted of killing his four-year-old niece - should receive a new trial.
Mullins-Johnson was exonerated of that crime last year on the heels of new information about the quality of evidence given by now-discredited child pathologist Dr. Charles Smith.
Borins is survived by his wife Elaine; daughter Gwen; and grandchildren Jeremy, Gregory, and Kayla.