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April 13, 2012 5:41 PM

Former Canadian Supreme Court Justice Joins Toronto Litigation Boutique

Posted by Claire Zillman

Ian Binnie, former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, says he never aspired to a seat on the country’s highest bench. “The odds are so low of it happening, there’s no point. But if the opportunity falls out of the sky and lands in your lap, you grab it,” he says.

Binnie was appointed to the Canadian Supreme Court in 1998 when the court made the rare move of taking a lawyer from the bar directly to the bench. Binnie had made a name for himself by representing governments, including Canada, in public law and aboriginal rights matters, counseling companies on patent and regulatory issues, appearing before various international tribunals, and representing Canada in high-profile disputes involving France and the United States.

From 1998 to 2011, Binnie wrote 170 decisions as a justice for Canada's highest court, and ascended to the second most senior spot on the bench, behind only the chief justice.

But in May 2011, he made the unexpected announcement that he would step down from the bench, two years before he would hit the mandatory retirement age of 75. Binnie announced earlier this month that he would return to private practice at Toronto litigation boutique Lenczner Slaght Royce Smith Griffin.

“We are absolutely delighted to have him,” says Lenczner Slaght managing partner Peter Griffin. “He is  the cream of the crop in terms of people in his category.”

The 73-year-old Binnie attributes his decision to return to private practice to his adrenaline-seeking nature. “On the court, you don’t have the highs or the lows that you do as a barrister. We come in to court and hear the arguments, and have a civilized discussion about the case. No one screams. It’s a very serene and stable existence,” he says. “After a while that becomes a bit too predictable.”

What Binnie craves now, he says, is the “disorganization” of a law firm. “I like when people are running around the office, putting something together at the last minute,” he says.

The firm, which has 45 lawyers including 15 partners, specializes in litigation related to liability insurance, insolvency, and professional negligence. Binnie had worked alongside the firm’s five founders at McCarthy Tétrault before they left to start Lenczner Slaght in 1992. The McCarthy connection drew Binne to Lenczner Slaght as did the firm’s sole focus on litigation.  

But as a former justice, Binnie is barred from appearing in court. He will work at Lenczner Slaght instead as a sort of consultant, advising clients on litigation strategy and potential outcomes. He expects to be a “second opinion” for clients facing bet-the-company litigation.

In addition to joining Lenczner Slaght as counsel, Binnie will be a resident arbitrator at Arbitration Place, a new arbitration facility in Toronto that has partnered with the London Court of International Arbitration and the International Chamber of Commerce in Canada. Another resident arbitrator at Arbitration Place is Yves Fortier, the former chairman of Ogilvy Renault who left his firm in October 2011 shortly after its merger with Norton Rose.

Binnie says arbitration has always been a part of his practice, but sitting on the Supreme Court helped him further understand why companies opt to arbitrate. “It’s a pretty sad commentary that you'd be sitting [on the bench] dealing with a dispute that’s ten years old. Litigation gets trapped in the courts—it’s time-consuming and expensive,” he says.  

Arbitration Place's long-term objective—and Binnie's—is to make Toronto a center for arbitration. “It’s a neutral turf for an American company that gets into fights with a British company, for instance. I would think the parties would be quite happy to come to Toronto,” he says.

Binnie will officially start taking on cases at Lenczner Slaght and the Arbitration Place as soon as he concludes a case in New Zealand. The government there has hired him to provide an opinion in a wrongful criminal conviction case. Binnie is working as a one-man commission of inquiry for the government independent of the firm and the arbitration facility. The case should wrap up in the fall, he says. Afterwards, he'll return to Toronto and “get the adrenaline going again,” he says.

By that time he’ll be 73 and a half. “As long as I’m interested in what I’m doing and I’m in good health, I'm going to keep working," says Binnie. Sitting on the Supreme Court was the chance of a lifetime, he says, “but everyone should be shaken up every now and then.”

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