The lawyer you call if you are young, hip and poor
The lawyer you call if you are young, hip and poor
I MET CLAY RUBY in pretty colorful circumstances, but then, that is how most people meet him. In my case, I was having dinner with some friends who superintend an old brownstone apartment building in Yorkville, Toronto’s hippie district. We heard someone rushing down the hall and then a long-haired kid ran into the apartment and shouted, “The nares (narcotics agents) are beating up Jeff. We need witnesses!” We got up to follow him. Then he stopped and pointed at me. “You ... get Clay Ruby!” I knew the name. Clay Ruby is the man you call if you are young, hip and poor, and you have trouble with the law. Ruby is what they call in the States a “civil rights lawyer.” He was at the apartment in Yorkville in 10 minutes.
The scene wasn’t hysterical when Ruby arrived, but it was tending that way. Clayton Ruby, however, is the antithesis of hysteria. At 28 he is the picture of a well-manicured junior in a firm of Jewish attorneys. He is precise-looking. That fits the way he set about editing the legal story out of the story the people in the apartment were telling him. The officer had refused Jeff permission to phone his lawyer even though his apartment was being searched for drugs. That was contrary to the right to counsel (Canadian Bill of Rights). Jeff's might be a good test case, since the phone call was refused in the presence of “disinterested third parties” — (my friends).
Ruby phoned in a complaint to the RCMP. Jeff said if he didn't get redress from the RCMP, he intended to
sue. Ruby then said, “You probably won't get any money but it could raise an important principle in law. Have you got money?” Jeff hadn’t. "OK,” said Ruby, “Check with the Ontario Legal Aid Plan in the morning. If you don’t qualify, I’ll do the case without fee.”
Ruby’s evenings go that way as often as not, and have done so since the days of the civil rights movement. In 1966 he went down to Mississippi to help investigate murders of blacks and later that year he joined a Student Union for Peace Action project in northern Saskatchewan and gave legal advice to the Métis in Green Lake. For one year after that, he and some other law students formed Toronto’s “Village Bar,” which gave free legal advice from a table on the Yorkville Avenue sidewalk. Ruby is not very romantic about it, though.
“Everything we did was a failure, it was just a matter of degree. In Mississippi, I mainly walked around being scared; when I got scared enough, I came home. With the Village I suppose we did win some sort of war of attrition over the vagrancy charges. There used to be a lot of them, maybe 15 on a bad night. We just started defending them all, every last one of them, until it was so much of a nuisance that the police stopped charging kids with vagrancy. But it didn’t change anything.
“After the northern Saskatchewan experience, I began to realize that a lot of people saw the law as an instrument belonging to others that is always used against them. That is true of almost everybody — the poor, hippies, Indians. The law is what the power maker threatens them with.”
Ruby decided somewhat reluctantly to return to law school. “I had ideas of bringing about legal reform, but meaningful change just isn’t about to happen. Look at Trudeau’s criminal law reforms. Big deal. How many practising homosexuals do you know who were arrested for practising homosexuality in their bedrooms? How many more people are getting abortions now than before? An insignificant number. The purpose of the abortion reform was to protect hospital doctors who were giving those abortions in any event, not to protect the right of women to control their bodies.
“You see, at base, the law is designed to protect property interests, both historically and at the present time. In most areas, property has precedence over such intangibles as dignity, fairness, privacy — for example,
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wiretapping. Assume the police tap my phone. This is an invasion of privacy and dignity, but I can’t do anything about it because Bell Canada owns the property involved, my telephone, and the law recognizes no suit for invasion of privacy and dignity.
“At the same time the courts are unable or unwilling to deal with change. Look at pot smoking. The courts insist it is criminal. That has got to be the most useless model for dealing with pot smoking that I can think of. It is an accident of history that in 1923 marijuana was put on the Opium and Narcotic Drug Act, but this dictates, in 1970, the range of responses to pot smoking. It limits the kinds of question's you can ask. At any rate, the criminality model itself is a bad model. It was bad in 1700. It’s a failure. It hasn’t wiped out crime. It is pure ritual.
“Really, any meaningful change in the law would have to be so basic that it is not likely to occur. People who own property tend to have the rights that the courts and parliament choose to protect. And that means that any real change has to be focused beyond the legal system. So now I just try to help people by making sure they at least know what their rights are.”
To that end, Ruby and his law partner Paul Copeland wrote a tiny paperback law book called Law Law Law, which has sold 11,000 copies in six months.
“In Law Law Law, we wanted to clear up some of the myths. For example, legally there’s no such order as ‘Come along to the station, we want to talk to you.’ But many people don’t know that. Fair play might prevail if you don’t know the law, but it’s much more likely if you do.” With Law Law Law on the bookstands, Ruby is spending more and more of his time practising political law.
“Increasingly,” he told me, “I am defending people arrested for some form or another of political activity.
“I’m defending those so-called ‘radicals’ because, in many ways, I think what they are doing is more important than what I am doing. If change is going to come, I am convinced it will have to be from the streets, not from the courts. For the radicals, freedom is not a textbook matter. They are testing the limits of those freedoms in the streets. Where else should a lawyer be?”
Ironically, the last time I saw Ruby was at a Toronto street demonstration, just before he was arrested for obstructing police. He was later acquitted. □
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