Law as a vehicle for social change: Joseph

By April Cunningham, Associate Editor

Taking part in more than 250 reported cases in both Ontario and Alberta, Toronto family lawyer Gary Joseph has never shied away from difficult files while drawing attention to important legal issues.

“When a marriage breaks up, it’s like throwing a puzzle and seeing the pieces scatter on the floor,” Joseph, managing partner of MacDonald & Partners LLP, tells

“Over the years, I have come to appreciate there is life after separation and divorce, and when people are experiencing a difficult time in their lives, there’s a great deal of satisfaction in being able to help them put the pieces together and move on to a new life.”

Called to the Ontario bar in 1978, Joseph — who has always enjoyed the intellectual challenge of the courtroom — started out practising both family and criminal law. Over time, he shifted to focus exclusively on family law. After a number of years practising at a smaller firm, he joined forces with James MacDonald, Q.C., who was looking to rebuild his firm.

Since then, MacDonald & Partners LLP has grown from a team of three lawyers and two clerks to 17 lawyers and a large team of support staff across four locations.

“We have outstanding partners, strong associates and huge resources, such as a full-time research lawyer, to offer anyone in a family law dispute,” Joseph says. “We take difficult cases, litigating in many different venues and courts, including the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada, although like most family law firms, we settle most of our cases.”

Joseph has taken on a number of cases leading to significant decisions over the years, he says.

He represented the wife in Contino v. Leonelli-Contino, [2005] 3 S.C.R. 217, 2005 SCC 63, which dealt with the apportionment of child support. He also worked on another Supreme Court decision out of Alberta dealing with child custody and child abduction, and has brought a number of leave applications to the Supreme Court.

Joseph, who also has a master's degree in constitutional law, has recently taken on a pro-bono case working as co-counsel on a constitutional family law issue pertaining to children with disabilities, he says.

When not in the courtroom, Joseph has been an avid writer, teacher and contributor on many topics in the legal community.

He taught frequently at the community college level and was a lecturer at the Law Society of Upper Canada’s family law bar admission course for many years. He says he finds it “invigorating” to work with young minds who share his steadfast passion for law. He was involved in the early stages of the Family Information Program and served on the Bench and Bar Committee at the downtown 311 Jarvis Toronto Family Court.

Joseph has written two books: Handling a Family Law Matter in Ontario and The Family Law Litigation Handbook (Ontario and Alberta versions), and co-authored two others including the only publication of its kind, Family Arbitration in Canada, now in its third edition. He was recently contracted to update a book on custody law for Carswell with Ann Wilton, research lawyer with MacDonald & Partners LLP.

In the 1980s, Joseph worked hard on proposals to revise Ontario legislation to move toward a presumption of joint custody. When that failed he made further attempts to lobby for change about 10 years ago. While the bill never passed, Joseph remains firmly in support of the concept.

He also continues to speak out about the need to modernize court procedures and unflinchingly points out problems with self-represented litigants and what he says is the negative impact on proper procedure.

“Our judicial system is the foundation of the rule of law in this country and if we allow it to erode, we’ll face some very serious consequences,” he says. “What’s going on in the courts these days with self-reps and the struggles judges have to try to fairly adjudicate in a way that will produce consistent, reliable jurisprudence, it’s overwhelming.”

Joseph, a father of four, grandfather of one and former marathoner and three-time Hawaii Ironman triathlete, says he plans to continue writing about the law when he retires.

“I love the law, and I think it can be a vehicle for social change and improving the way we do things,” he says. “I’m passionate about trying to improve the judicial system, which has been stalled for many years. I think we can do better.”

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