Friday, September 30, 2016
The Grand Moot in progress.

By Peter Boisseau / Photography by Holly Sherlock

The 2016 Grand Moot delivered a rare unanimous verdict. Three Supreme Court of Canada justices, and a packed room of faculty, students and dignitaries, agreed they’d never witnessed an event quite like it at the University of Toronto’s storied law school.

Start with the fact that it was held in the newly refurbished Rosalie Silberman Abella Moot Court Room, with U of T alumni and SCC Justice Rosalie Abella presiding, along with fellow alumni and SCC Justices Michael Moldaver and Russell Brown.

SCC Justices Russell Brown, Rosalie Silberman Abella, and Michael Moldaver
L-R: SCC Justices Russell Brown, Rosalie Silberman Abella, and Michael Moldaver

A trailblazing jurist who in 2004 became the first Jewish woman appointed to the SCC, Abella could not contain her emotions as she thanked the audience for attending the inaugural Grand Moot in the room named for her.

“I guess it’s because I feel so strongly about the law school and the people who helped me, and my family and friends being here, and the president of U of T,” Abella explained later in an interview following a reception in her honour. “I’m overwhelmed.”

Watching the Grand Moot from the audience was Hal Jackman, who graduated from U of T Law in 1956, and now sees his philanthropy recognized with his family name stamped on the newly opened Jackman Law Building, which houses the Abella Moot Court Room.

“This is a kind of historic moment,” added another special guest, U of T President Meric Gertler, “and I’m glad to have been here for it.”

An annual student-organized event, the circumstances around the 2016 Grand Moot made this one particularly auspicious, said Faculty of Law Dean Ed Iacobucci.

“This is a terrific opportunity to display what our Faculty of Law community is all about,” Iacobucci told the audience.

It was a tough act to follow, but the four law student grand mooters acquitted themselves well before the SCC justices, given an opportunity that even many lawyers can only dream about.

Victoria Hale and Zacharia Al-Khatib for the Appellant, and Giorgio Traini and Sarah Bittman for the Respondent, deftly argued the case of Cameron, a citizen of the fictitious country of Flavelle, where a crisis in access to justice mirrors real life events in Ontario and Canada.

L-R: Grand Mooters Giorgio Traini, Sarah Bittman, Zacharia Al-Khatib, Victoria Hale
L-R: Grand Mooters Giorgio Traini, Sarah Bittman, Zacharia Al-Khatib, Victoria Hale

Charged with indictable theft and breaking and entering, Cameron was denied state-funded legal aid because his income exceeded their antiquated eligibility requirements by a few thousand dollars. He retained a well-meaning but overworked lawyer from a free legal clinic, only to find his counsel forgot to tell him about a favourable but time-limited plea bargain the Crown had offered which would have reduced the charges to a summary offence, carrying a maximum six-month sentence.

Prior to his trial, Cameron filed a Rowbotham application for funding to hire a lawyer of his choosing. He was turned down by a judge who ruled he could afford a lawyer by selling his house and moving in with his parents, even if it meant losing his job and harming his daughter’s education.

In an ironic twist, the Crown argued at the jury trial of his co-accused that Cameron was not guilty. Once they obtained a conviction of his alleged partner in crime, they used the same set of facts to argue at Cameron’s separate judge-alone trial that he was guilty.

Defending himself after dismissing his lawyer for the plea bargain gaffe, Cameron was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison by the same judge who rejected his Rowbotham application.

Hale and Al-Khatib argued Cameron’s Charter rights were violated by his defense counsel’s failure to communicate a beneficial plea bargain. They said his Rowbotham application was improperly rejected, and the Crown had abused the legal process by arguing incompatible theories of the crime at the two trials.

Traini and Bittman countered that those arguments were unfounded because Cameron received a fair trial, and could have had hired legal representation if he had taken the necessary steps to do so, no matter how difficult.

As is tradition, the Grand Moot panel reserved judgment, but they made it clear they felt they had witnessed something exceptional.

Brown said he had judged dozens of moots in his career, “and this was among the very best, certainly the top two or three, performances I’ve seen.”

Moldaver joked that the student grand mooters had managed to accomplish the tricky feat of convincing the panel to be unanimous.

“This is one of the hardest things you will ever do,” he added, noting the court was packed with family and friends of the grand mooters.

“You all have tremendous careers ahead of you, and you can now say that you’ve argued in the Supreme Court.”

Paul Morrison, a senior partner at Moot Court sponsors McCarthy Tétrault and the president of the Law Alumni Association, echoed those sentiments.

“Thank you for justifying our faith in the sponsorship of the Grand Moot,” he told the students. “We are very grateful to you.”

Watch the 2016 Grand Moot