Obituary: Morris Manning, the lawyer who defended Canada’s abortion doctors

Toronto lawyer Morris Mannin

Morris Manning, among Canada’s pre-eminent criminal lawyers, died in Toronto on June 20 at the age of 80.

His daughter, Katherine Manning, confirmed that Manning died of cancer at the Temmy Latner Centre for Palliative Care.

Manning was a “giant” in the profession, lauded the Ontario Bar Association, and his legal legacy “will undoubtedly live on for many more years to come.”

In a career that spanned 54 years, he became a formidable counsel, appearing before the Supreme Court of Canada more than 100 times.

He specialized in criminal, constitutional, international criminal, privacy, and administrative law. Manning “broke new ground in the areas of criminal and constitutional litigation in both trial and appellate practice,” said his death notice.

“Driven and disciplined in his knowledge of the law, (he) had a wealth of knowledge and expertise and a reputation of distinction and prominence in Canada. He was truly a luminary in his field. The courtroom was his battlefield. He was a champion for unpopular legal causes and the rights of Canadians,” his death notice went on.

Perhaps most notable was his defense of Drs. Henry Morgentaler, Robert Scott and Leslie Smoling, who were charged with performing illegal abortions. Manning represented the trio from their trial through to the 1988 Supreme Court of Canada decision that struck down the abortion section of the Criminal Code as unconstitutional. It was widely seen as a case that helped shape legal thinking under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

His family noted that the accomplishment is marked in video format at the Canadian Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg.

Looking back at the precedent-setting ruling years later, Manning saw it in simple terms: “Many doctors wanted to provide abortion services without fear of charges, in essence, to legalize what was already being done.”

Manning was “a fearless advocate who established his well-deserved reputation” in defending the abortion doctors, Toronto criminal lawyer John Rosen told The CJN.

Manning believed that a woman in Canada has the right to make her own decisions regarding her reproductive health without state interference, and that the criminal provisions prohibiting abortion were unconstitutional, Rosen said. The Supreme Court, he added, agreed.

Criminal lawyer Leo Adler agreed that Manning may be best remembered for defending Morgentaler and the other doctors.

Given the outcome of the case, “most of Canada owes him a tremendous debt of gratitude,” said Adler.

“He was fearless in calling out situations that he believed were wrong and he wasn’t afraid to say so publicly,” Adler noted. “He exemplified everything a defense counsel should be.”

In addition to the Morgentaler case, Manning made headlines in the 1980s when he and his client, the Church of Scientology, were jointly found to have libeled Casey Hill, a Crown attorney. In a case upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada, it was the largest libel award in Canadian history to that date.

Manning was among those Jewish lawyers who spoke out against the 1985 conviction of Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel for spreading false news. Although he obviously disagreed with Zundel, he believed the conviction raised serious questions about the right to criticize a historical event. Said Manning: “If a person cannot do so, then freedom of speech is meaningless.”

A prolific legal writer, Manning co-authored a leading criminal law textbook, Manning & Mewett on Criminal Law. He also wrote the first text on wiretap law.

He was born in Montreal on Nov. 6, 1940 to Jack, an immigrant from Lithuania, and Betty (née Goldstein) who was born in Poland. The family moved to Toronto, where Manning graduated from the University of Toronto’s law school in 1965, the same year he married Linda Rapson, from whom he would separate after 35 years. He was called to the bar in 1967.

He began his career as a Crown counsel, then moved to the Civil Litigation and Constitutional Law section at the Ministry of the Attorney General. He entered private practice in 1979.

His family noted that as a movie buff, he considered his favourite, The Godfather, not only a masterful film but “a teaching tool for negotiations and tactics.”

Manning is survived by his spouse, Theresa Simone, daughters Kate and Rachel Manning, and grandchildren Andrew and Emma Graham. His sister, Eileen Anture, died in 2011.