Former Ontario lawyer Harry Kopyto was called to the bar in 1974 after completing his legal education at Osgoode Hall. From the beginning he was a political activist within the socialist movement in Canada and a firebrand for civil rights for prisoners, women, gays and lesbians, the aged, union members and the downtrodden of society.
A large part of his practice entailed actions against the police and crown prosecutors and his reputation grew as someone who would not back done from a fight. In the early 1980’s Kopyto acted for client Ross Dawson, a colleague of Kopyto’s in the League for Socialist Action. Kopyto represented Dawson in several lawsuits against the RCMP, alleging wrongful interference with the League’s acivities and defamation of Dawson.
Dawson lost his lawsuits. Harry Kopyto was incensed as to what he perceived was a “fix”. He contacted a local newspaper who printed his statements about the trial:
“This decision is a mockery of justice. It stinks to high hell. It says its okay to break
the law and you are immune so long as someone above you said to do it. Mr. Dawson
and I have lost faith in the judicial system to render justice. We’re wondering what is
the point in appealing and continuing in this charade of the courts in this country
which are warped in favour of protecting the police. The Courts and the RCMP are
sticking so close together you’d think they were put together by Krazy Glue.”
Kopyto was charged with contempt of court for “scandalizing the court” and faced a fine and a prison sentence of up to six months if he was convicted. Kopyto, with large support from his fellow lawyers and the benefit of a legal defence fund mounted a spirited defence but was convicted and ordered to apologize to the Court or be barred from practicing law in Canada until he did so.
Kopyto appealed and on November 27, 1987 the Ontario Court of Appeal acquitted him finding that the charge against him was unconstitutional. He continued his high profile practice until 1989 when he was charged with professional misconduct by the Ontario Law Society for allegedly overbilling the Province’s legal aid plan by $150,000 over three years.
The irony in the allegations was that legal aid lawyers were notoriously underpaid and much of the work required on a case they were never paid for. Kopyto acknowledged that he may have unintentionally overbilled on some accounts and underbilled on others, but that in the end he did not defraud legal aid. He said “If I wanted to rip off people to make money, I wouldn’t have done legal aid. To say you can rip off Legal Aid is ridiculous.”
The three member disciplinary panel of the Law Society recommended his disbarment and after a vote by the elected members of the Law Society, he ceased practicing law in November of 1989. In an unusual turn of events, one member of the Law Society would not support Kopyto’s disbarment. Lawyer Thomas Carey said that he fundamentally disagreed with the other members and asserted there was no basis for the allegation of fraud noting that the Legal Aid Society did not pursue Kopyto for reimbursement and in fact, paid him further funds they said were owed him.
Kopyto’s appeal in 1993 was unsuccessful but he did not leave the practice of law instead he became a paralegal in Ontario, a profession that at the time was unregulated. He represented hundreds of clients but it was never easy. It was reported that over the years he was excluded from individual courtrooms on at least fifty occasions.
However, those difficulties were minor compared to the problem he faced when Ontario’s paralegals were regulated and included as members of the Law Society. His old nemesis took the position that he was not of sufficient “good character” to be permitted to practice as a paralegal under the new rules.
Kopyto has been engaged in intense litigation with the Law Society to assert his right to continue to practice his profession. Hearings scheduled for September 2010 were cancelled, but his case is far from over. This may yet be the biggest battle of his life. In his words ” I didn’t expect a professional guillotine to fall on my neck, but I will not go gently into the night.”
We wouldn’t expect you to Harry. Good luck.
Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang