Janet Leiper will receive the Law Society of Upper Canada’s award that recognizes leadership in the profession by a woman, an honour all the more meaningful because she is just the second person to get the nod.
The LSUC established the Laura Legge award in 2007 in honour of the first woman bencher and treasurer. It was fitting that Susan Elliott - the second woman law society treasurer - received the award when it was first handed out last year.
But with so many other women making massive contributions to the profession, it’s a fitting compliment to Leiper that she has been singled out this year among such a deep pool of candidates.
Since being called to the bar in 1987, she has made her mark as chairwoman of Legal Aid Ontario, an alternate chairwoman of the Ontario Review Board, a director of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, and by helping roll out a new public-interest program for LLB students at Osgoode Hall Law School.
Leiper says she finds it “hugely gratifying” to receive the honour. But she recognizes others who have helped her along the way.
“I think what it really means is that it’s not about the person, it’s about what the person has learned and seen others do,” she says.
“And it’s about acknowledging that there are many ways to make a contribution in this profession. So I feel, and I’m sure a lot of people who win awards feel this way, as though this is an award for many people. I feel I’m there on behalf of anyone who showed me how to do this job, how to try to accomplish solutions for people, for justice, for the profession.”
Leiper was raised in Mount Forest, Ont., a small town about 150 kilometres northwest of Toronto. Her father, Doug, was a high school teacher, and her mother, Jean, a stay-at-home parent who later became involved in local politics.
Leiper credits them for instilling solid values in her and her two younger brothers.
“There was a lot of humour in our family,” she says. “They really valued independence and they valued independence in us. They really gave us the message that, if we worked hard, we could accomplish whatever we wanted to do.”
That guidance prompted her to pursue one year of undergraduate studies in engineering at the University of Waterloo. She then shifted her focus to a career in law, and the following year attended the University of Western Ontario. She went on to begin her legal studies at Western the following year.
She describes her experience at law school as “wonderful.”
“The best part, for me, about law school was getting to work on real files at the legal aid clinic in downtown London,” she says. “Like many students before and since, that introduced me to the real world of law and what it really means to be a lawyer; what it really means to advocate for people; how to talk to people about their problems; and meet people from all walks of life.”
Leiper moved to Toronto for her articling term to work at a small firm. She gained experience in various areas, but especially criminal law. Her mentor was Frank Marrocco, now an Ontario Superior Court judge.
Leiper opened her own practice two years later.
She says her interest in human behaviour led her to the practice of law, and specifically, “How it plays out in the criminal law setting,” she says.
“The idea of having an adversarial process in place to try to accomplish both protecting the rights of the person being charged and protecting the interests of the community,” she says. “The challenge of it, and the reach of it, and the ever-changing nature of the files was also a big draw for me.”
Leiper’s passion for the job impelled her to take a more active role in the profession. She says many of her mentors mentioned the importance of balancing casework with time spent considering “the broader picture.”
“Being on the executive of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association allowed us to think more together about our role in the criminal justice system - how can we be part of making sure that it is a balanced system, and have a voice at the decision-making tables?” she says.
She served as an alternate chairwoman of the Ontario Review Board from 1995 to 2001, and as counsel to the ORB in 2003 and 2004. She has also contributed to the Nunavut Review Board.
She remains a member of the ORB’s board of directors. She considers the board a forum for her to learn more about what brings people into contact with the criminal justice system, specifically those dealing with mental illness.
“You kind of see the system sometimes at its best, but also sometimes at its worst, because these are the most marginalized and vulnerable sets of clients,” she says.
“You see, in fairly stark terms, the responsibility of the administration of justice is to make sure that the most vulnerable, and sometimes the most isolated people, are dealt with with dignity. And that they get to where they should go to get the help they need.”
Leiper also served those in need at LAO, where she served as chairwoman from 2004 to 2007. While in that role she learned just how difficult it is for legal aid to carry out its mandate.
“The provision of high-quality legal aid services to low-income people in Ontario - there always have been limits on the ability to provide those services,” says Leiper. “So we became acutely aware of the gaps in service, the greater need for service, and how to accomplish improvements. But before we could even get to improvements, how to ensure that it didn’t erode.”
Leiper’s experience at both the CLA and LAO gave her a thorough perspective on the situation that has motivated criminal defence lawyers’ ongoing boycott of cases involving homicide or guns and gangs.
“It’s certainly something that we as a board were flagging five years ago, six years ago, and before us,” she says. “I think one of the important goals for the administration of justice is to find a way to ensure that all sides grow at some kind of measured and proportionate rate.
“If you out-distance one side and the thing is out of balance, then you will see, as we’ve started to see . . . injustices can occur,” says Leiper.
While Leiper was told that legal aid is not an “interesting issue,” she aimed to change that perception.
“We knew it was important,” she says. “As soon as we saw the reach that legal aid has - and by the way it goes way beyond the criminal defence side . . . - we felt our mandate was to ensure that the funders, government, and in particular MPPs, understood what legal aid really was about.”
That desire led to a massive public education program that, she says, gave interested parties a better appreciation for the organization’s role in society.
Meanwhile, over the last two years, Leiper helped implement Osgoode Hall’s public-interest requirement for LLB students as a visiting professor. It is the first law school in the country to introduce such a requirement, which calls for a 40-hour contribution from each student.
“I really enjoyed those two years,” she says. “It was so well-received. Everyone that you talk to in the profession, whether it be at Pro Bono Law Ontario, Legal Aid Ontario, within government, students have been able to have this whole range of experience.”
During that stint she also taught criminal procedure and ethical lawyering in a global community.
Leiper clearly isn’t one to take a breather. Days after speaking with Law Times, she was named Toronto’s new integrity commissioner. She will offer advice, complaint-resolution services, and education to councillors and other city staffers on ethics rules in the role.
This is the fifth in our series focusing on recipients of the LSUC awards honouring the best of the profession. To watch a video of the interview please go to our web site www.lawtimesnews.com.