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TLA honours justice and lawyer during awards gala

A Supreme Court justice and a lawyer renowned for her commitment to youth in the criminal justice system have been honoured at the Toronto Lawyers Association (TLA) Awards Gala, says executive director Joan Rataic-Lang.

Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella received the TLA Award of Distinction, while lawyer Emma Rhodes was presented with the Honsberger Award during a ceremony at the King Edward Hotel Crystal Ballroom, Rataic-Lang tells AdvocateDaily.com.

The Award of Distinction honours outstanding contribution to the integrity and value of the law and the legal profession, she says. The Honsberger is unique in that it is the association’s only award where nominations come from the membership. The award, named for past TLA president and historian John D. Honsberger, annually recognizes a member who personifies the TLA’s three pillars — knowledge, advocacy, and community.  

Rataic-Lang says these "outstanding" women, who spoke passionately about their work to the 200 gala attendees, are deserving of the prestigious awards.

“Justice [Rosalie] Abella began by singing the praises of former recipients, and ended by saying how proud she was to be a part of the Toronto legal community,” Rataic-Lang says. “At times funny, at other moments intimate, and always engaging, she brought the audience to their feet.”

Born in Germany in a displaced person's camp, she came to Canada as a refugee and became the first refugee appointed to the bench in this country. Abella was also the first Jewish woman appointed to the Supreme Court, and she was only 29 when she was selected to the family bench. She also headed Canada’s 1984 Royal Commission on Equality in Employment, Rataic-Lang says.

Abella "articulated groundbreaking concepts in her report that were adopted by the Supreme Court of Canada in its first decision dealing with equality rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1989,” says a release announcing her selection as the TLA Award of Distinction recipient.

New Zealand, Northern Ireland, and South Africa also implemented the report, the announcement states.

Abella, who holds 38 honorary degrees, has reached thousands with her message of equality and justice for all, the TLA executive director says.

“Her legacy is not only all of the work she’s done in her field, or what she has been able to accomplish as a woman, it is also what she has been able to share with so many through her public speeches.” 

Rataic-Lang says Rhodes was also touched by her honour and conveyed to the audience how passionate she is about working with young people in the youth criminal justice system.

“She is so instrumental in helping them navigate the complex system, and giving a voice to those who are often unheard,” Rataic-Lang says.

Through her work in the court system with underprivileged youth and children, Rhodes has been appointed by the courts to act as amicus curiae (friend of the court), where the accused is suffering from mental health issues but has refused counsel, her award announcement noted.

"What makes Rhodes even more extraordinary is that she is a sole practitioner. She is doing this on her own without the encouragement that lawyers in a firm might receive, and that is significant, " Rataic-Lang says. "It’s difficult work, and we’re pleased to be able to recognize it.”

Rhodes is a panel lawyer for the Ministry of the Attorney General’s Independent Legal Advice for Sexual Assault Survivors Pilot Program. She is also a member of the Criminal Law Advisory Committee for Legal Aid Ontario and has been widely published in the area of youth criminal justice, including co-authoring the textbook — Prosecuting and Defending Youth Criminal Justice Issues, (2016).

“Her volunteer activities mirror her commitment to her legal practice,”  Rataic-Lang says, citing Rhodes' work with Covenant House, Community Legal Education Ontario, and the Ontario Justice Education Network.

“She is so deserving of her award and the recognition that she is getting,” says Rataic-Lang.

Past recipients of the Award of Distinction include former Ontario premier Bob Rae, Earl Cherniak, one of Ontario's top arbitrators and mediators, with more than 50 years' experience, and Justice Susan E. Lang, retired Ontario Court of Appeal judge.

Last year’s winner of the Honsberger Award was Ian Hull, co-founder of the Toronto firm Hull & Hull LLP.

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