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Eye On Windsor: Crime, border spur long history of famous advocates

|Written By Ron Stang
Perhaps it’s the fact Windsor was one of historic Canada West’s first administrative sites. Perhaps it’s its border location with a freewheeling tradition ofback-and-forth migration, commerce, and, not least of all, crime.


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But whatever the reason, Windsor’s legal community is rich historically; relatively large (some 550 practitioners serving a regional population of 350,000); and has depth in such areas as criminal law, civil litigation, family and estates, and, not surprisingly, immigration law.

Canada’s best-known class action litigator is here, a former cabinet minister chose to practise here, and the city has a clutch of well-known defence counsel.

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The city of 200,000 is Canada’s auto capital, with as many as seven Big Three manufacturing plants and dozens of suppliers. Over the last decade, the casino industry has helped diversify the economy. The North American Free Trade Agreement has generally been seen as a boon to export-oriented local manufacturers.

 Windsor has always had a significant white-collar workforce. The University of Windsor has added an academic and growing research element to the economic mix. And the city is unique in being situated across the  river from Detroit.

The city’s largest and best-known firms include Sutts Strosberg, Ducharme Fox, Miller Canfield, Greg Monforton, McTague, Kirwin Partners and higher profile individual practitioners like Frank Miller, Andrew Bradie, Laura Joy, Kirk Munroe, and Helen Conway.

Pat Brode, a solicitor for the City of Windsor who has written about the city’s legal history, says the depth of law extends to Windsor’s early settlement.

“I think to some extent that goes back to the fact the Windsor-Sandwich area was the provincial capital for southwestern Ontario, in the days when this was the Western District,” he says.

Brode also says the city has “always had a history” of a respected defence bar, stemming largely from being “betwixt and between” as a border town.

“Even during the 1930s and ’40s, as a result of Prohibition, this was a very open city in many ways. So the kind of criminal cases we had here were unusual.”

A notorious one was the charge of murder against outspoken temperance advocate Rev. Leslie Spracklin of alleged bar owner Babe Trumbull (Spracklin was acquitted). Shady underworld types also frequented the city. Al Capone and Bugsy Moran did business here and Detroit’s notorious Purple Gang, which sought to control export trade, brushed the city.

Criminal lawyer Greg Goulin agrees Windsor’s defence bar has “always been exceptionally-recognized.” He says during the old days of assize courts “the joke among the judges” was that “there was the practice of law in Toronto, the practice of law in the rest of the province, and the practice of law in Dodge City,” meaning Windsor.

“We were known to have the most creative and unusual defence, with some of the most competent defence counsel in [Ontario].”

By the mid-20th century some of the most respected counsel were from Windsor, like Gordon Campbell and Bernard Cohn who, Brode says, “were really very provincially-noted.” Current day criminal defence lawyer Patrick Ducharme calls Cohn “one of the greatest lawyers ever to practise in this country, not just in this area.”

The defence bar reflects the never-a-dull-moment crime scene.

“There’s no doubt,” says Goulin, who started as a Crown, “that the border has significantly influenced the rate of criminal activity.”

Today 15,000 people daily cross from Detroit for business, shopping, dining, and gambling. “The potential that we see for smuggling this and that or the other thing is amazing, let alone all sorts of administrative breaches,” he says.

The border has generated vibrant practices in related law. Andrew Porter of the Immigration Law Firm or Hulka Porter LLP calls Windsor a “fantastic place” to practise. Windsor-Detroit is the busiest commercial border in the world and myriad companies here do international business, much of it within a relatively small radius of the two cities, and require legal assistance. Business has also boomed under NAFTA. A great bulk of Porter’s firm’s business is in handling matters like securing work permits and transferring employees and their families.

What’s “interesting” about immigration law, Porter says, is that “it expands a lot of different forms of law” such as corporate, tax, criminal, and family. For example, cases where there may be estranged family members and custody disputes with parents and children, and resulting access issues, between the two countries.

The boom in cross-border trade contributed to Windsor’s largest firm, Wilson Walker Hochberg, in 2002 joining with Michigan’s largest and oldest firm, Miller Canfield Paddock and Stone. Miller Canfield is the only Michigan firm with a Canadian office.

“If we’re doing a corporate matter in the United States and there are some Canadian assets,” says Miller Canfield CEO Tom Linn, “we don’t have to engage a separate firm to handle the Canadian aspects of the transaction.”

Canadian law group leader Jeff Slopen adds that the Windsor office can draw on the 370 firm lawyers stateside for advice on intellectual property, patents, and trademarks. “We can make the representation of clients who have operations on both sides of the border seamless.”

The international flavour of legal practice here is also reflected at the university’s law school. It offers a unique LLB/JD leading to licensing in Ontario and Michigan. The school also combines curriculum with both the University of Detroit Mercy and Wayne State University. Students cross the border daily to take classes.

University of Windsor’s long-standing “access to justice” philosophy also has attracted students who want to practise law to create social change. In fact, law school dean Bruce Elman says, even though the school is almost 40 years old, it may be getting stronger in this regard as it now moves to expand community law clinics.

The city’s legal influence on a wider canvas over the years has extended to the bench. Legalists point to well-regarded justices who not only practised here but moved to higher courts: Former Ontario Court of Appeal justice Thomas Zuber, a “well known, well liked, well recognized scholar and a practical man; that came through in his judgments,” Goulin says, or Superior Court justice Carl Zalev, who chose to remain in Windsor despite offers for higher positions.

Litigator Harvey Strosberg mentions several names - Zalev, Zuber (who’s now with Strosberg’s firm Sutts Strosberg), Saul Nosanchuk (retiring from the Ontario Court), and John Holland, “a leader of the motor vehicle bar for years” at the McTague Law Firm.

Other justices include John Aylesworth and Arthur Jessup, who both served on the court of appeal.

A former Law Society of Upper Canada treasurer (1997-99), Strosberg also is known for authoring the plan that eliminated the society’s $154-million lawyers’ liability fund deficit.

But it’s in the area of torts and class actions, the high profile and breadth of his lawsuits, and even his representation of people at the highest level of provincial and federal politics that have brought him the most attention. The class he’s been part of reads like a dossier of some of the biggest Canadian news stories over the past 15 years.

These include acting as lead counsel in the largest class action payout in Canadian history - $1.1 billion from the federal government in the Hepatitis C case, lead negotiator in the settlement in the Walkerton, Ont. E. coli water contamination case, a class action against YBM Magnex, and ongoing litigation against Bre-X Minerals.

He was consulted by former Ontario premier Mike Harris for advice leading to a settlement for the surviving Dionne quintuplets, and advised lawyers hired by the Liberals defending against former Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s lawsuit in the Airbus affair, settled out of court.

Currently, he’s bringing a $515-million class against Money Mart and Dollar Financial Group over so-called payday loans. He has a $200-million lawsuit against IMAX Corporation alleging misrepresentation of revenue and earnings.

Strosberg, a Windsor native, has maintained it really doesn’t matter “whether you practise on Main Street or Bay Street” and with the current state of technology “it’s all the more so now.” His 23-member firm is a class action boutique and a “factory” researching and preparing cases. The firm has a small office in Toronto, and Strosberg spends about half his time there.

“The fact you’re a Bay Street lawyer doesn’t mean anything when you’re in a courtroom. The judge doesn’t care where your office was. The judge only cares whether you got it right or wrong.”

Strosberg and one of the firm’s founders, Clifford Sutts, have also attracted big names like Toronto commercial litigator Bill Sasso and UN Ambassador Allan Rock.

Strosberg’s Windsor shop wasn’t strictly a litigation firm. Eight years ago it divided and, non-acrimoniously, the criminal law side went its own way. The leader of that side of the firm, Patrick Ducharme, is Windsor’s highest profile criminal defence lawyer.

Ducharme has now handled more than 100 murder cases and represented clients across the country and in several American states. He’s perhaps Windsor’s top go-to defence counsel. He’s currently among counsel representing six Toronto police officers charged in that city’s drug squad scandal. Co-counsel are among the top practitioners in the province - Harry Black, Tim Danson, Peter Brauti, Earl Levy, and Alan Gold.

Ducharme has also acted on behalf of several NHL players as an agent. One of his longtime clients has been former Detroit Red Wings’ Bob Probert, who had several skirmishes with the law over his considerable time in the league and out.

Ducharme now represents several players, including Probert and Phoenix Coyotes’ centre Jeremy Roenick, in a battle with the National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA) to get answers as to how much money has accrued to the association from players’ dues and promotional fees and whether some of that should be paid back. He says the association has not provided a proper audit and owes the players a lot of money.

The NHLPA, he says, “refuses to do a distribution and they have hundreds of millions of dollars and it belongs to the players.”

Ducharme has refused to recertify as a player agent with the NHLPA and says he is enjoying his new role as thorn in the organization’s side. “I’m now probably the organization’s worst public enemy,” he chuckles. “I’m having great fun with it to tell you the truth.”

While Ducharme battles with the NHLPA, another Windsor litigator has launched his own campaign against another powerful institution - the car insurance industry.

Greg Monforton has long been Windsor’s leading practitioner in single-event torts. Accident & Injury is the headline for his double-page ad in the Yellow pages, though the firm also does mass torts and class actions.

In late January, he reached an out of court settlement for the family of a woman killed while crossing a busy intersection used daily by thousands of trucks near the Ambassador Bridge heading to and from Detroit, spurring construction of an overhead pedestrian walkway. He also represents the family of Lori Dupont, a nurse who was killed by her former lover, a doctor, while both were working the same shift at one of the city’s hospitals.

That case generated headlines across Canada, sparked cries for tougher workplace safety legislation, and about which a coroner’s inquest has now been called.

On the class action side, Monforton is co-counsel in a suit against Guidant Corp. for potentially defective heart implant defibrillators and pacemakers, and represents more than 200 Canadians who have suffered a heart attack or stroke, or had a family member die while taking the pain medication rofecoxib (Vioxx).

As president of the Ontario Trial Lawyers Association, he is spearheading a campaign for changes to the province’s no-fault insurance system, which he calls “unduly harsh” to innocent motor vehicle accident victims.

He says the association has achieved a “real recognition by the government that we have an important perspective to offer.” He hopes to parlay that into a provincial rollback of what he describes as onerous insurance claim provisions.

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