Working to eradicate violence against women: Mary Lou Fassel receives the 2018 Laura Legge Award

Posted: 05/15/2018

Mary Lou FasselMary Lou Fassel: Called to the Bar in 1983, Mary Lou Fassel has demonstrated extraordinary achievement and leadership through her work at the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic. By integrating client services with various systemic advocacy initiatives, Mary Lou has worked tirelessly to improve laws and legal system processes for female survivors.

Through her outstanding work over three decades of practice, she personifies the best qualities of the profession and her dedication to eradicating violence against women is deservedly recognized.

During her impressive career, she has consulted with legislators, policy makers and diverse community leaders to explore creative approaches to justice remedies and to address violence in more victim-centred ways. She designed and delivered hundreds of professional development and public legal education programs and oversaw interventions at the Supreme Court of Canada bearing on women’s equality rights in criminal law. Under Mary Lou’s direction, BSCC also delivered a broad-based clinical education program for University of Toronto and Osgoode Hall law students.

What does this award mean to you?

“It is extraordinarily meaningful to me to be awarded the Laura Legge Award. Laura is part of a long tradition of women fighting to achieve equality within and outside of the legal profession.

She was a ground-breaker and like all ground-breakers, she paved the way for other women to achieve their career and personal goals, despite institutional and cultural barriers.

I have always admired women like Laura, who had the courage to buck convention and the conviction to keep fighting for equal treatment sometimes in the face of substantial resistance. Her leadership was an inspiration to women. As a person who has played a small role in this struggle, I am deeply honoured to be added to the list of past Laura Legge Award winners.”

Initially attracted to a career in politics, Ms. Fassel believed that an education in law would provide a good entry point.

There has been a long tradition in her family of passion for politics — from local to international. Family traditions/events were always infused with debates about politics and political movements. Social injustice in Canada and the deterioration of democratic institutions in many countries still inspires her to be engaged.

“The plight of our natural world still demands that we ‘notice’ and take action where possible to stop the progress of environmental destruction, the tragedy of world-wide displacement of persons must still be recognized and addressed, as must racism and oppression of peoples worldwide, and, of course, so must violence against women in all of its forms and dimensions,” states Ms. Fassel.

While attending law school, she felt a general dissatisfaction about what appeared to be the limits of law as a tool for social change historically — but at the same time was gripped by a great idealism about the capacity of the law to make fundamental and positive change in people’s lives.

When asked what she viewed as the biggest achievement in her career, she talked about her work at the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic (BSCC). BSCC is a unique not-for-profit organization that is distinguished by the fact that it delivers several essential services to women survivors of violence (legal, counselling and language interpretation), that it focuses on all forms of violence (sexual assault, domestic violence and childhood sexual abuse) and that it blends direct services to survivors with a broad range of systemic advocacy initiatives.

As such, she considers her greatest achievement was having delivered services to over 40,000 women during her tenure as Legal Director at BSCC, services which assisted those women to transform their lives.

She is particularly proud of the work she did, in concert with other women’s advocates, to achieve amendments to the Children’s Law Reform Act to include domestic violence as a criterion upon which custody determinations are made, and the sweeping, 1992 Amendment of the Criminal Code that redefined sexual assault and consent and expanded the pre-existing ‘rape shield law’ which had been struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada.

Similarly, she is very proud of her advocacy for the introduction of the Criminal Code provision that limits production of complainants’ personal records in sexual assault trials.

Being retired from law, but still being deeply committed to issues of social justice, this Award will be a life-long reminder to Ms. Fassel of the value and importance of contributing to the welfare of the community, using the skills, tools and privileges she has, by virtue of her professional standing, to be a part of change processes — and to remain engaged in the dialogue about social justice.

The Laura Legge Award was established in 2007. It is presented annually to a woman lawyer in recognition of service given while a member of the Law Society of Ontario. Laura Legge was a member of the Law Society for more than 60 years and became the first woman elected bencher, the first woman ever to serve as Treasurer and was a senior partner of the firm of Legge & Legge. This award will continue to commemorate her exemplary professional career, her mentorship of other lawyers, her long-standing service to the Law Society and her admirable contribution to community service.

This year, 10 exceptional members of the legal profession will be honoured with Law Society awards at a ceremony on May 23rd.