Calgary, Alberta, and Canada Lose a Great Legal Mind and Defender of Liberty

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Calgary, Alberta, and Canada Lose a Great Legal Mind and Defender of Liberty

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms had a profound impact on the legal landscape in Calgary and throughout Canada, granting in clear black and white many of the basic civil liberties that were taken for granted by some in the world, and that many today still struggle for.

Provisions such as those entitling people accused of crimes to the assistance of a trained criminal defence lawyer, mandating that all accused are treated as innocent until proven guilty, and requiring law enforcement to restrain their investigations so as to not intrude on the lives of innocent Canadians made our system fairer and safer, and made our government answerable to the people rather than the other way around. The passage of the Charter is one of the most significant moments in our nation's history, and Justice James Herbert Laycraft was one of the most significant forces in implementing that Charter here in Alberta.

Though he only served for six years as Chief Justice of the Court of Appeals of Alberta—the highest court in the province, answerable only to the Supreme Court of Canada—they were six incredibly formative years, and his years on the Court and the cases he helped to decide continue to influence the practice of law in Calgary, in Alberta, and indeed throughout Canada to this day. His years of service came immediately after the passage of the Charter, and few can compare to Laycraft as a defender of the liberties this law set out to protect.

On Wednesday, August 5, former Chief Justice Laycraft died at the age of 91.

Having been retired for close to fourteen years, it might seem out of place to dwell on Laycraft's passing and its impact on the Canadian and Calgarian legal landscape. And it's true that his death does not have a direct impact on how laws will be viewed or how cases that come before the Alberta Court of Appeals will be decided. But in this era of increasing conservatism, and of politicians and pundits who seem to be intent on chipping away at the Charter with every opportunity they can, the demise of this liberal bastion from the Charter's early days should give everyone—lawyer, police officer, judge, Crown prosecutor, and average Calgary citizen alike—some cause for reflection.

The Calgary Herald opened its story on Laycraft's death with the following statement:

It’s hard to fathom how different the legal profession might be today for Albertans and the rest of Canadians, for that matter, if not for the gigantic footprints left behind by James Herbert (Herb) Laycraft over a momentous four-decade career as a litigator and judge.

Truer words can hardly be spoken, as Laycraft was not simply instrumental when it came to applying the Charter to the rights of everyday Canadian citizens and the limitations it imposed on law enforcement, but also played a significant role in reshaping court practices and clarifying and codifying laws and rules that existed prior to the Charter. This man truly spent a career as a legal reformer, trying to make the system more fair and more efficient for everyone involved…

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