Focus On

Downey commits to collaborative approach as Ontario’s new attorney general

Friday, June 21, 2019 @ 2:32 PM | By Christopher Guly

Lauded by former colleagues for his collegiality, Ontario’s new Attorney General Douglas Richard Downey plans to take a collaborative approach on new initiatives and lingering issues that dogged his predecessor, including one that drew a comment from Canada’s top judge.

While Downey was preparing to be sworn in as the province’s 41st chief legal adviser to the Crown at Queen’s Park on June 20, Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Richard Wagner was holding court with reporters in Ottawa at an end-of-session news conference at which he diplomatically replied to a question of Ontario’s $133 million cut to legal aid from this year’s provincial budget.

“Legal aid is essential to the justice system to make sure that [it] is strong and fair — and it’s also a smart investment,” said Chief Justice Wagner.

Doug Downey

Ontario Attorney General Doug Downey

Downey told The Lawyer’s Daily that he had a brief meeting June 20 with Caroline Mulroney, who was shuffled into the transportation portfolio and who faced criticism as attorney general from the legal community over the 30 per cent reduction in funding for Legal Aid Ontario.

“I’m going to get through the briefings and make sure that I understand how the issue has developed,” said Downey, who was told about his cabinet promotion on June 19. “It’s my style to talk to a lot of stakeholders to get a full understanding.”

However, he stopped short of committing to reversing the legal aid cuts. “I don’t anticipate we will change direction,” Downey said in an exclusive interview.

Ontario Bar Association (OBA) president Lynne Vicars said that while legal aid funding remains a priority for the 15,000-member organization, she believes that Downey, a past treasurer and secretary of the OBA, is “someone we know who is going to listen to the profession, and he’s going to craft legislation that really works for the legal sector and the people we serve.”

Vicars, who served with Downey on the OBA’s finance committee and is the chief innovation and strategy officer at Heuristica Discovery Counsel LLP, said he is “absolutely someone who consults and knows about fair decision making, and I think these are things that come naturally to him.”

As parliamentary assistant to now-former finance minister Vic Fedeli, Downey said he became familiar with the cannabis and automobile insurance files, which have some overlap with the Ministry of the Attorney General. But beyond preparing for a marathon of briefings from government lawyers, the 49-year-old, Law Society of Ontario certified specialist in real estate law has already set priorities in his new job.

“I want to bring sustainability, access for the vulnerable to make sure that we’re in a position to help those that need it and some long-term modernization reform,” explained Downey, who on the latter is in favour of using technology to “deliver services differently,” such as filing more legal documents online.

He noted that he holds a master of arts degree in judicial administration from Brock University (in addition to a master’s degree in municipal and development law from Osgoode Hall Law School) and worked as a court registrar before he entered law school at Dalhousie University.

Elected in 2018 as the MPP for the new provincial riding of Barrie-Springwater-Oro-Medonte, Downey was previously a city councillor in Orillia for six years. However, when asked whether he would invoke the notwithstanding clause, as Mulroney did last year to reduce the size of Toronto’s city council (which ended up shrunk via a challenge before the Ontario Court of Appeal), the attorney general deftly deflected the question.

“I’ve learned two things in politics and law, and that’s not to consider hypotheticals because the context and circumstances are so unique every time,” Downey replied.

Patrick Lassaline, a partner with Downey Tornosky Lassaline & Timpano Law in Orillia, where Downey is still listed as being on leave, said he was “thrilled” at the senior cabinet-level appointment of his colleague, whom he has known since 1998, when Downey was an articling student.

“As attorney general, he’s got a solid background in the everyday practice of law; is somebody who’s used to leadership; and he’s somebody who’s always been willing to sit and listen and talk to people,” said Lassaline, a civil litigator. “They’ve put the right person in the job.”

No less enthusiastic about Downey’s rise to become Ontario’s chief law officer is a veteran member of the province’s real estate bar.

“He will be a very practical and common sense attorney general,” said Sidney Troister, a senior partner in the commercial real estate group at Torkin Manes LLP, who has seen Downey deliver results regarding subdivision control, which has been a passionate focus for Troister over the past three decades.  

“For the last 20 years, I’ve been trying to get common sense amendments made to the provisions in the Planning Act,” explained Troister. “No government was interested in listening to me because there was nothing sexy or politically advantageous about amending section 50. But it affects every real estate transaction that is ever conducted in Ontario and it needed revision.”

Following Downey’s election to the Ontario legislature, Troister approached him, as a fellow real estate lawyer, and sought and received the neophyte Progressive Conservative caucus member’s help.

What resulted was private member’s Bill 88 to amend the Planning Act, for which Downey received non-partisan support, and that passed second reading last month before being referred to the Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs.

“My experience with him is that he is responsive; he is smart; he is practical, and he is experienced in issues involving the Ontario legal system,” said Troister, author of The Law of Subdivision Control in Ontario, a 464-page definitive guide to s. 50 of the Planning Act, which is now in its third edition.

The Law Society of Ontario has “enjoyed a very good working relationship with the new minister,” who served on the governing body’s special library and information support services committee, said treasurer Malcolm Mercer in a statement. “His experience in the legal sphere and his previous work with the law society will be invaluable.”