TORONTO – A one-time Toronto lawyer known for championing underdog causes and whose high profile battles with the profession’s regulator spanned decades has been forced into legal retirement.
In a decision this month, a Superior Court justice permanently barred Harry Kopyto from practising law, providing legal services or holding himself out as a legal agent – a ban the maverick said he would respect in favour of pursuing political activism.
“Access to justice has always been a central part of my legal work,” Kopyto, 73, told The Canadian Press. “I’ve pushed the system as far as it can go.”
The injunction issued by Justice Edward Belobaba came at the request of the Law Society of Ontario, which disbarred him three decades ago for over-billing Legal Aid. He argued he was administratively sloppy and the accusation vindictive.
Despite being stripped of his robes, Kopyto continued to provide legal services as a paralegal. In 2007, regulation of paralegals put Kopyto back in the cross-hairs of the law society, which in 2015 refused to license him for not being of “good character.”
Kopyto, dubbed “ungovernable” by the society, kept working as a “legal agent.”
In court last month, the one-time provincial New Democrat candidate admitted the law society allegations against him. He acknowledged drafting court documents, providing legal advice, and representing clients in numerous proceedings in various forums, including the Supreme Court, where he has appeared over the years more than 15 times. Only lawyers can legally do those things.
Kopyto, whose legal exploits and antics made frequent headlines, was convicted of contempt in 1986 after he raged that the RCMP and courts were so close, it was as if they were stuck with contact cement. An Appeal Court ultimately set the conviction aside. Kopyto said he had no regrets.
“I affirm my Krazy Glue comments. More valid today than at any other time,” Kopyto said. “The police and the courts are stuck together with Krazy Glue as it were.”
Kopyto said he opposed the law society’s injunction motion to press his point that his clients – many of them “little people” who sought out his services – would likely have had no representation if it wasn’t for him. The regulator, he said, protects the financial interests of lawyers rather than fighting for the fundamental right of access to the courts.
His major disappointment was that Belobaba, despite showing some initial sympathy, did not make a bold statement about the increasingly recognized difficulty of the shallow-pocketed in affording legal help, he said.
“I wanted to get the bench to speak out,” Kopyto said.
Philip Slayton, a retired lawyer and author in Toronto who wrote a book in 2007 called “Lawyers Gone Bad,” called Kopyto a radical, anti-legal establishment outlier who often used bad judgment.
“Nonetheless, people like that have a role – they perform a useful function particularly within the legal profession that tends to be very establishment, very conservative,” Slayton said. “He acted to excess and was his own worst enemy, but somewhere in all that, there was a person trying to do the right thing and fulfilling a useful role.”
Kopyto was born after the war to a Polish Jewish family in a displaced persons camp in Ulm, a city in then-West Germany. He had lost almost his entire family in the Holocaust. He moved to Israel in 1948, then to Canada in 1952, and grew up in Toronto.
Kopyto, who began practising law in 1974, said he is proud to have fought more than 100 often ground-breaking cases that changed the law and human rights codes for gays, blacks and other minorities, and exposed police abuses.
In one high-profile case in 2002, he won compensation for Velma Demerson, who sued the Ontario government for jailing her for 12 months in 1939 because she was unmarried, pregnant and living with a Chinese man.
“I’ve dedicated my real life to justice,” he said. “I have made my practice an instrument for equality, social change and for human dignity, all things that are rare in the judicial system.”
Belobaba, who thanked the self-represented Kopyto for his in-court courtesy, said he had no doubt an injunction was needed, noting the former lawyer said he would obey it.