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Campus counsel

Professional Profile
|Written By Sheldon Gordon
Campus counsel

When Maureen Armstrong became general counsel at York University in July 2014, one of her first challenges was a $20.5-million lawsuit brought against York by eight students  — two who were accidentally shot in the university food court in March 2014 and six others who witnessed the incident.

Ironically, Armstrong had joined York following six years as chair of the criminal injuries compensation board, an independent provincial agency that adjudicates claims for public compensation made by victims of violent crime. Yet her experience with criminal injury indemnity was not, she says, a factor in York hiring her.

Harriet Lewis, a 25-year veteran in the legal department, was retiring as GC. “York was looking for someone with experience managing in a legal environment who respected the diversity of the population that York has in its student body and faculty and staff,” says Armstrong. (She has three lawyers reporting to her in the office of the counsel.)

The food court shooting, although accidental, was the latest in a series of violent incidents to rock York. The plaintiffs retained Diamond & Diamond Personal Injury Lawyers, who alleged in the Statement of Claim that York failed in its duty to protect students on campus. 

“The movement of [the case] is more in the hands of the plaintiffs,” says Armstrong. “Counsel for the plaintiffs is now pursuing an amendment to their revised Statement of Claim. Following its acceptance by the court, we will submit our Statement of Defence. But the university is always open to looking at opportunities for a settlement.”

York is represented by external counsel Thomas Gold Pettingill LLP, selected by Canadian University Reciprocity Insurance Exchange — an insurance system for universities across Canada.

Meanwhile, York is the plaintiff in a $3-million civil suit against two former managers whom it alleges defrauded the university of more than $1.2 million through a complex web of fake invoices, transactions, and kickbacks whereby York paid for services that weren’t performed.

The two defendants were cleared of criminal wrongdoing after prosecutors deemed a pair of key witnesses (also former York employees) unreliable in October 2013. The civil trial is set for June 2016.

Lenczner Slaght LLP is acting for the university.

Access Copyright trial set for May

Armstrong, however, has bigger litigation worries. A trial date in May 2016 has been set for a lawsuit launched in 2013 by Access Copyright against York over a copyright dispute.

Access Copyright is a non-profit that collects royalties on behalf of writers and publishers. It alleges in its lawsuit that York professors made copies of “a substantial part” of several copyright-protected works for which the university didn’t obtain permission or pay royalties.

It argues that new fair-dealing guidelines that York relied on, in part, to make the copies are “arbitrary” and too broad.  This is the first legal test of the guidelines, which York and more than 20 other universities are following (rather than adhering to a model licence agreement negotiated in 2012 between Universities Canada and Access Copyright).

“The choice of York [as the target of the lawsuit] is a little random,” says Armstrong, “in that York was not the only university moving toward using the fair-dealing guidelines.”

York has succeeded in having the case bifurcated, so the first phase of the trial will focus on the photocopying practices of five York professors rather than all of the faculty. “It’s more efficient to zero in first on five professors than do a full sampling of the university’s 1,400-plus professors,” says Armstrong.

York University is represented by external counsel from Osler Hoskin & Harcourt LLP. The university’s legal fees, which Armstrong says will amount to “hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not a million,” are being partially defrayed by contributions from other institutions through Universities Canada.

Another high-profile issue across academe that occupies Armstrong’s attention is awareness, prevention, and response regarding sexual assault on campus. A few months before her appointment as general counsel, York settled a libel action against Toronto Life magazine. The magazine had published an article that characterized York as “a hunting ground for sexual predators.”

Armstrong is part of a 15-member working group at the university that is drawing up guidelines and procedures for a sexual assault policy that was approved by the board of governors last February.

“The issue of how do you ensure fairness in the university’s processes in response [to an accusation of sexual assault] is obviously something the working group is looking into,” she says.

Any party appearing before a York tribunal on a matter involving alleged violation of the student code is already allowed to have legal representation. “The working group may consider how to ensure that the option of participation by legal counsel is communicated to parties in sexual assault matters,” she says.

Early desire to pursue the law

Armstrong originally decided to become a lawyer when she was nine years old, and never wavered. “The inspiration was Ben Hur. The justice issues and the human rights issues in that movie inspired me to go into law.” 

She articled with the Ottawa firm of Nelligan Power LLP. 

In 1995, she joined the federal government-appointed commission of inquiry into the Canadian Airborne Regiment’s conduct in Somalia. She was involved in evaluating and organizing the documentation. “We had 39,000 documents, and a team of us, mostly lawyers, helped flow them to the counsel for the inquiry,“ she recalls.

Armstrong then went to the Canadian Human Rights Commission, serving in a series of roles over 13 years. She started as a legal researcher, investigator, and conciliator, and then moved up to counsel, senior counsel, and director-general of the legal services branch. Her leadership helped the commission reduce the time taken to complete human rights complaints by more than half.

She then became director-general of the corporate management branch. The most memorable part of her time at the CHRC was her involvement, in her final two years, in international human rights law. The CHRC played a leadership role in the Geneva-based International Co-ordinating Committee for National Human Rights Institutions. 

Armstrong chaired the accreditation subcommittee. This body reviewed applications from various countries that were creating human rights commissions and wanted the international respectability that accreditation conferred. “It was an immensely stimulating experience,” she says, “because you got to see the status of human rights protections in so many different nations.”

She moved to Toronto in 2007 on an interchange program with Legal Aid Ontario. The assignment as vice president, Eastern Ontario, was for three years, but one year in, when the post at the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board became available, Armstrong jumped at the opportunity.

Her role as chair was to ensure the effective day-to-day operation of the board, especially the appointment and training of the 30 to 40 adjudicators who hold hearings across the province on compensation claims by victims of violence. She implemented an initiative to improve service to victims that resulted in a 60-per-cent reduction in claims processing time.

“I put emphasis on being very supportive of staff and adjudicators,” she says, “because they are hearing, on an ongoing basis, some of the worst things that one human being can do to another.”


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