FOLLOW-UP

Trials of a legal gadfly

MORTON RITTS May 12 1986
FOLLOW-UP

Trials of a legal gadfly

MORTON RITTS May 12 1986

Trials of a legal gadfly

FOLLOW-UP

Toronto lawyer Harry Kopyto is accustomed to living at the centre of controversy. A defender of human rights causes, Kopyto, 39, has frequently taken unpopular positions. But currently he has set aside his gadfly status and gained the support of many of his more conventional legal colleagues in one of the most heated disputes of his career. In December, 1985, after losing an eightyear legal battle to prove RCMP subversion of left-wing organizations, Kopyto declared in a newspaper interview that the courts were so “warped in favor of protecting the police” that it seemed as though the two were “put together with Krazy Glue.” Two months later Ontario Attorney General Ian Scott ordered that Kopyto be served with a rarely used contempt citation for “scandalizing the court.” That charge, expected to go before the courts this fall, has raised concerns in the Ontario legal community about the right of lawyers to criticize the justice system. Said Toronto criminal lawyer Clayton Ruby: “The issue here is freedom of speech.”

Kopyto’s troubles with the justice system date from 1977. Already known as a crusading lawyer for his defence of the rights of blacks, gays, women, prisoners and the disabled, Kopyto was approached by Ross Dowson, a former executive secretary of a then-defunct left-wing activist organization, known as the League for Socialist Action (LSA). Dowson asked Kopyto to lay charges against the RCMP for alledgedly engaging in illegal actions which had disrupted the LSA in the early

1970s. Kopyto agreed but lost his initial civil suit for slander in 1981, when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that security service officers had “absolute immunity” from civil suits. The courts blocked similar attempts by Ko-

pyto to initiate criminal proceedings on the same issue, prompting the outspoken lawyer to claim that the ruling gave tacit approval to the RCMP’s alleged activities.

Undaunted, Kopyto pursued another course and, in 1982, launched a $3,000 suit against the RCMP in a Toronto small claims court. But when the case came before Judge Marvin Zucker three years later, Zucker dismissed it. Within hours of reading that ruling, Kopyto made the statements which resulted in Scott’s citation.

Some members of the province’s legal community say that the citation challenges the public’s right to criticize the judiciary. They are concerned that ordinary citizens, as well as lawyers, may face charges of contempt for statements that are considered disrespectful of the courts. Support for Kopyto has grown from both outside and inside the legal community. A 30member defence team is now being assembled for the Sept. 22 trial. If convicted, Kopyto faces fine or imprisonment and the loss of his right to practise law. An avowed Marxist and social reformer, Kopyto says that he does not want to become a martyr. He added, “I just want to go about my business.”

— MORTON RITTS in Toronto

MORTON RITTS