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Breese Davies: upholds the Charter and constitution in criminal practice

From the Maher Arar inquiry to cases before the Supreme Court of Canada, Toronto criminal lawyer Breese Davies has a breadth of experience as an effective advocate and litigator.

“What I enjoy most about my work is having the opportunity, in a small way, to shape the rights that we all enjoy as Canadians and to litigate how they should develop and evolve over time,” she tells AdvocateDaily.com. “I particularly enjoy the Charter and constitutional work I do.”

She handles all criminal offences and has acted as defence counsel in a number of terrorism-related matters, which remain unusual for Canada.

“I’m interested in the defence of terrorism-related matters because I don’t think we’ve got it right yet in terms of the balance between individual rights and national security,” she says. 

Davies, principal at Breese Davies Law, was drawn to criminal law for its strong connection to human rights and, through her varied criminal practice, continues to work towards the preservation of all individual rights under the Charter of Rights of Freedoms. 

“I knew from the time that I started at law school that criminal defence work was what I wanted to do. I figured out that's where most of the litigation around Charter rights was happening,” she says.

She grew up in a family that was active in social justice issues, but Davies started out studying music at the University of Toronto before switching to the criminology program, graduating a Gold Medal Winner with a Bachelor of Arts degree. From there, she attended law school at the University of Toronto and received the Professor Alan A. Mewitt, Q.C. Prize in Criminal Law. She was called to the bar in 2000 and six years later, she graduated with a Master’s of Arts degree in criminology. 

During law school, Davies worked part-time for Toronto criminal and constitutional lawyer Clayton Ruby, who she describes as one of her first mentors.

“After I saw his practice and what he did, I knew I wanted to practise at Ruby & Edwardh,” she says. 

After graduating from law school and clerking at the Superior Court of Justice, Davies started working full time as an associate at his firm — then Ruby & Edwardh — where she worked closely with both Ruby and Marlys Edwardh. While there, Davies worked on several high-profile cases.

She acted as co-counsel (with Edwardh and Lorne Waldman) for Maher Arar. 

“The process resulted in a massive rethink of how policing and intelligence agencies share information about suspected terrorists,” she says. “It also highlighted the risks around how we treat suspects in terrorism cases and what can happen to them when the state gets it wrong. For Maher, the cost of the mistakes made by intelligence and policing agencies in Canada and elsewhere was that he spent more than a year in a Syrian jail where he was tortured physically and psychologically. That is simply unacceptable.”

Davies left the firm in 2006 to work as a sole practitioner and continued taking on complex cases. 

She acted as co-counsel (with Jeff Manishen, Mara Greene and Joseph Di Luca) for the Criminal Lawyers Association at the Inquiry into Pedatric Forensic Pathology in Ontario before the Honourable Stephen Goudge that looked at the work of disgraced pathologist, Dr. Charles Smith.

But it is probably Davies’ work on the Ashley Smith inquest that had the greatest impact on her personally. She was counsel for the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, an advocacy group that works with and on behalf of woman who are incarcerated or at risk to be incarcerated. 

“Ashley Smith was the 19-year-old woman who died at Grand Valley Institution in Kitchener, while correctional officers stood by and videotaped her,” she says. “The inquest into her death looked at how we treat mentally ill inmates in the federal correctional system. The inquest resulted in 104 recommendations. It now appears that the Trudeau government is working toward implementing those recommendations, which include abolishing solitary confinement for people who are mentally ill and ensuring that mentally ill women serve their sentence in a treatment facility, not a prison.”

Davies says it was an emotional inquest with complicated issues. She approached her role in the proceedings as honouring Smith’s life and making sure that whatever recommendations came out of the inquest “would noticeably improve the lives of women in custody.”

Davies has held various leadership positions in professional organizations and is a strong proponent of women in criminal law. As the first female vice-president of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association — and the organization’s vice-president for women before that — she has done a great deal of work on the retention of women in defence practice. 

She was involved in a working group that resulted in the creation of two new positions at the CLA — the women’s vice president and women’s director. Under her leadership, the organization commissioned a study on the retention of women in defence practice that was released in March 2016. 

“The idea is to keep women in practice and to improve their experience when they are working,” she says. 

Davies was a sessional instructor at Osgoode Hall Law School in 2010 and continues to teach as an adjunct professor in criminology at the University of Toronto.

A frequent presenter on legal issues, Davies has written in numerous legal publications. She is an assistant editor with Canadian Rights Reporter and co-editor for the CLA’s magazine, For the Defence

Among her numerous community and pro bono commitments, Davies represents indigent inmates on criminal appeals as pro bono duty counsel for the Court of Appeal for Ontario.

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