Former Superior Court justice David Humphrey is being remembered as a pioneer in the legal community, helping raise the profile of criminal lawyers through the creation of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association and fostering camaraderie with his infectious passion for the job.
Humphrey died in his sleep May 17 at the age of 83.
“As he progressed in his chosen career, it soon became apparent that David Humphrey was going to achieve a position at the very pinnacle of his practice,” says Humphrey’s law partner and former Superior Court justice Hugh Locke.
He suggests Humphrey achieved what he did “by living each day with great enthusiasm. He approached every case on the basis that whether he won or lost it, he would deliver his very best ability on behalf of the client. And that ability was prodigious.”
Humphrey spent 50 years in the criminal justice system before retiring in 1999, starting out as a Crown attorney upon being called to the bar in 1950. After four years he turned his attention to the defence bar and opened a practice with Locke. He finished his career after spending 15 years as a Superior Court judge.
Humphrey’s many contributions were acknowledged when he was recognized by The Advocates’ Society book Learned Friends as one of the 50 best advocates in the province from 1950 to 2000.
Last year he received the Criminal Lawyers’ Association’s G. Arthur Martin Criminal Justice Medal, which recognized his outstanding contribution to criminal justice.
After hatching the idea of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, Humphrey hosted its first organizational meeting in his 3 Sultan St. office in 1971. He nominated Locke as the association’s first president, and remained involved in its business as an educator and mentor.
Humphrey also contributed to Ontario’s legal community by volunteering for continuing legal education seminars and serving as a bencher of the Law Society of Upper Canada for 12 years.
Humphrey Sr.’s son, Toronto defence lawyer David Humphrey of Greenspan Humphrey Lavine, remembers his father’s “unfailingly positive disposition and robust sense of humour.”
Humphrey says his father “viewed life as an adventure, and his philosophy was to make sure that however grim the work you might be involved in, and as a criminal lawyer he was often dealing with very serious and tragic cases, but he still tried to find enjoyment in every day and humour in every situation.”
Adds Humphrey, “He was just admired by so many people who thought he was not only a great lawyer, but a great guy . . . He was exceptionally generous. If someone said they like his tie, he was as likely as not to take it off and hand it to him there and then.”
Humphrey shifted to private practice when Locke graduated from Osgoode Hall. Locke says they never had a dispute in their time practising together, and spoke of his colleague and friend’s approach to the job.
“He approached every case even-handedly. He did not seek convictions; he did, however, seek that the facts emerge in each case. He was very popular with both his colleagues on the Crown staff and with the defence bar, which was much smaller at the time than it is now.”
Locke says Humphrey “was able to engender and achieve a respectability with respect to the way criminal lawyers were regarded, which was low when he started and much improved to the present time.”
It was Humphrey’s idea, says Locke, to start an association of criminal lawyers that would gain the attention of politicians and civil lawyers. He says the Criminal Lawyers’ Association helped improve the status of criminal lawyers.
“He said, ‘It’s my idea, and Locke will do the work,’” he recalls, adding, “It was my pleasure.”
Locke told the following story at the G. Arthur Martin award ceremony last year, which encapsulates his former partner’s sense of humour: one day, “Patty Kane called out, ‘Mr. Humphrey, the law society auditors are here to audit your books. It’s a spot audit.’ Being quick on the uptake, Humphrey’s voice came back down the hall, ‘That’s terrific Patty. Order them a coffee and take it out of the trust account.’”
Locke says he hopes Humphrey’s approach to the job is embraced by others.
“I hope the camaraderie and the professionalism that he was able to create is maintained in this world of commercialism, even as it applies to criminal lawyers,” says Locke.
“He was a dynamic leader from the start, when he was a Crown attorney,” he says.
Ontario Associate Chief Justice Dennis O’Connor, who worked as a defence lawyer when Humphrey was among the leaders of the criminal bar, calls him “an inspiration to many young lawyers who went on to become leaders at the bar.”
O’Connor says Humphrey was generous with his time around the courthouse, always willing to offer advice to younger lawyers asking for guidance.
“He really mentored not just those who worked directly for him, but really anybody who was trying to get their feet into the practice of law,” says O’Connor.
“He was always filled with witty stories, but lots of very wise advice if needed.”
James Morton, a partner at Steinberg Morton Hope & Israel LLP, appeared before Humphrey on several cases and worked with him on continuing legal education initiatives.
“He was one of those guys who when he said something, people listened,” says Morton.
He recalls one incident during a bail review heard by Humphrey. Morton was struck by the fact that the judge took the case far more seriously than anyone else had, and spoke directly to the accused.
“He basically said to him, ‘I’m giving you a chance, don’t disappoint me.’ I know it made a difference,” says Morton.
“He really had a deep and immediate connection with the accused, and it wasn’t just that he was favourable to the defence side as opposed to the Crown side. He embodied a judicial fairness, which people could sense in the room. And this accused took what he said far more seriously than anything his lawyer said.”
In his obituary in The Globe and Mail, Humphrey was described as “an enthusiastic golfer, motorcyclist [he founded a defence lawyers’ bike club known as the Ill-Eagles], sailor, photographer, and traveller.
Most of all, he enjoyed the company of his countless friends and the love of his family. In characteristic candour and humour, Dave wanted it known that he was enjoying his government pension and that he ‘reluctantly gave up the ghost.’”
Humphrey is survived by six children including two lawyers, David and assistant Crown attorney Mary, and their siblings, Barbara, Susan, Nancy, and Stacey; 11 grandchildren; one brother; and his girlfriend, Joan Wylie.