From Bar to Bench and Back
John Getliffe’s passion for law has him practising again at 81
BY GEORGIE BINKS
When the Honourable John Getliffe, Law’62, was a young man, he had a chance to play for the Chicago Blackhawks – pretty enticing for any aspiring hockey player. But his dad Ray, a left-winger on Stanley Cup- winning Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens teams, had other plans for his son. “He talked me into going to law school instead,” John recalls. “I’ve never looked back.” In fact, he went from a highly respected criminal defence lawyer and prosecutor in London, Ontario, to the bench, retired at the mandatory age of 75, and is now happily back fighting courtroom cases again. He started practising law in London in 1964, and then, after a stint as acting Crown, to splitting his time between defending criminals and prosecuting them. “I enjoyed the challenge of being in court and the camaraderie of being among other lawyers,” he says.
Over the years, Getliffe handled a number of standout cases, including some where the accused had killed two people. “Double murders were always rather challenging,” he recalls, “but I had the satisfaction of getting all of them down from first-degree murder to manslaughter.” In 1981, he was named Queen’s Counsel; in 2000 he was appointed to the Ontario Court of Justice (at 63 the court’s oldest appointee at the time). “Being a judge was the best job I ever had,” Getliffe says. “I really enjoyed it because I’ve never had any difficulty making decisions. I found counsel almost always well prepared, and the submissions were interesting.” Counsel returned the compliment, lauding his fairness. In 2012, at 75, he had to give up the gavel. That didn’t mean Getliffe was ready to retire from law, though; he re-entered private practice and two years later received the Law Society’s approval to appear in court on behalf of clients. So, what has sustained his love for the law over all these years? “In every case, you’re looking for the hook,” as he puts it. “Sometimes there’s no defence, and you’re just making depositions or submissions on sentencing, but even the worst in society must be represented properly and, even if they’re convicted, they’re entitled to be properly sentenced. “And it’s important to care about your clients,” he adds. “I never met any criminal counsel who were good at what they did if they didn’t care about people. I felt the same way when I was a judge. It’s all about fairness.” In fact, one of his concerns today is the challenge courts face in treating Indigenous people fairly.
Throughout his career, he’s seen significant changes in criminal law. “Under the Charter, a lot more paperwork, motions and spurious things have complicated criminal cases and made them much longer,” he notes. After Ottawa imposed mandatory sentencing, he took substantial issue with sentence discretion being limited or removed entirely from trial judges and is pleased that mandatory sentencing is now mostly history in Canada.
Though he loves his practice, Getliffe is considering a second retirement soon – not to put his feet up, but to golf and travel more and continue flying. (Yes, he’s still a licensed pilot.) Last October, he celebrated his 55th anniversary reunion with four Law’62 classmates in Kingston. When they attended law school, they were a class of just 18. Student-faculty bonds were strong, Getliffe recalls, and Dean Bill Lederman and professors like Jim McIntyre, Al Mewett, Hugh Lawford, and Alec Corry (also Queen’s Vice- Principal) made a lasting impression. “Law was what I came for,” Getliffe says. “We had a lot of very capable people on both sides, student and faculty, and there’s still no question that Queen’s had a big effect on me.” And so, of course, did his dad’s sage advice.