Andrew M. Lawson, Legal Aid Pioneer

(JULY 5, 1927 — NOVEMBER 17, 2010)

“Wherever law ends, tyranny begins.” – John Locke

The 1960s were revolutionary times in the western world – times that stimulated radical changes to individual rights and obligations. In the law, this revolution found form in the legal aid movement. Ontario was a leader in this field, enacting a comprehensive legal aid plan under The Legal Aid Act, 1966, (the “Act”). Andrew M. Lawson, (Andy), was a central part of that revolution, first as the Secretary of the “Joint Committee on Legal Aid”, created in 3963 by the Attorney General to report on delivery of legal services to the needy and then, as the first Director of the Ontario Legal Aid Plan from 1967 until his retirement in 1988.

Before 1951, there was no legal aid in Ontario. If you found yourself before the Courts and could not afford a lawyer, you were on your own unless a lawyer was willing to represent you for free. To their credit, many lawyers took on such cases as part of their personal contribution to society, a service they viewed to be a professional obligation. In 1951, The Law Society Act was amended to provide funding for necessary disbursements incurred by lawyers providing free services, but it did not pay any compensation to lawyers. Such work remained charity.

The revolutionary idea of the 1960s was that any person was entitled, as a matter of right and not charity, to legal representation in the Courts on all matters. In its 1965 Report to the Ontario Legislature, The Joint Committee adopted the words of the U.S Supreme Court: “It is the nature of man to seek justice and the basic purpose of any good legal system to provide it” and that society must “… recognize that in our adversary system of… justice, any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer cannot be assured it fair trial unless counsel is provided for him”. It also made clear that a person should be able to choose their own lawyer, and therefore, a ‘public defender’ system should not be established; that counsel should be fairly paid; and that the Law Society should administer a legal aid plan funded by the government. These principals were embodied in the Act.

Andy was charged with making the Act real. His was the task of persuading all Ontario lawyers to actively participate in legal aid; establishing its administration throughout the province; pursuing adequate government funding despite the unpredictable nature of the public’s demands on it; dealing with the egos of politicians and Law Society leaders; and addressing the demands of lawyers ‘in the trenches’. Answering two masters, the government, and the Law Society, his was a constant balancing act to meet an insatiable public demand that shocked the Plan’s designers, the government, and the Law Society. Despite all, Andy built an organization that became the legal aid model for all other Canadian provinces and the envy of many in the U.S.

After retirement, Andy lived in Cobourg. Until his death in November 2010, he continued to advocate for a person’s right to competent, paid, legal representation of their choosing, no matter their economic or social circumstances. He held this to be fundamental to a fair justice system. With all the changes to the Legal Aid Plan since his retirement, he feared such rights were being lost to the politics of economics. For years, he offered his home, hospitality and charm to lawyers, judges and others for social gatherings always promoting legal aid. With his passing, a legal hero was lost to whom a huge debt of gratitude is owed by judges, lawyers and the public alike.

By William G. MacDonald – B.A., L.L.B., L.L. M.

For more information about Andrew Lawson – see this local news article.