During a career spanning more than half a century, Justice Sydney Lewis Robins (1923 to 2014) made his mark as a trailblazer, an impassioned advocate and an inspiring role model.
By Justice Marvin Zuker
Photo: The Law Society of Upper Canada Archives
Professionalism and compassion were the hallmarks of Sydney Robins’s 60-plus years of service to Ontario’s legal profession. During that time, he made his mark on education, both as a teacher and as a guiding influence on policy to protect the safety of our students.
From the very beginning, Robins’s commitment to and passion for his profession was evident. He studied law at Osgoode Hall, then attended Harvard on a full scholarship, earning his Master of Laws degree in 1948, just a year after being called to the Bar of Ontario.
Shortly after graduating, he was appointed special lecturer on torts at Osgoode Hall where he guided, inspired and mentored an entire generation of law students. At the same time, his professional practice began to flourish — first as a sole practitioner and later in partnership with his brother and other colleagues.
Robins was a pioneer and achieved many “firsts” during his career. In 1961, he was elected a bencher of the Law Society of Upper Canada, becoming the youngest person to serve on the Society’s Board of Directors at the time.
Then in 1971, his Law Society colleagues elected Robins to the post of treasurer, making him the first Jewish person to hold the title. He was elected to the role for two additional terms, serving until 1974.
During his career, Robins served as counsel in the Supreme Court of Canada, and all levels of courts and administrative tribunals, where he developed a reputation for dignity and civility. His stature was recognized by author Jack Batten, who wrote, “The qualities that made him an effective lecturer — elegance, grace, lucidity — were the same qualities that come to define him as counsel.”
In 1974, the provincial government appointed Robins to the position of judge for the Supreme Court of Ontario and then in 1981 he was tapped to serve as judge for the Ontario Court of Appeal.
Over the years he became an advocate for the well-being of children in our schools and went on to write an influential report on students’ safety after reviewing a landmark case.
The provincial government appointed Robins to review sexual misconduct in the teaching profession following the conviction of former Sault Ste. Marie teacher Ken DeLuca for multiple counts of sexual assault over a 21-year period from the early 1970s to the early 1990s.
Based on this case, Robins was asked to make recommendations about policies, protocols and procedures to identify and prevent sexual misconduct within the school system.
The subsequent report, Protecting Our Students: A Review to Identify and Prevent Sexual Misconduct in Ontario Schools, published in April 2000, led to 101 recommendations intended to help protect our students, which were addressed by the provincial government, the College, school boards, the judiciary and the federal government.
As Robins said about the document, “The bottom line is this: Abusers belong in the courtroom, not a classroom.” Because of Robins’s report, in combination with recommendations from the College and other education partners, the Government of Ontario introduced the Student Protection Act in September 2002. And just last year, the provincial government proposed further protective measures in Bill 103, the Protecting Students Act, 2013, to continue the work Robins began almost 15 years ago.
Robins’s colleague, Howard S. Black, once said of him, “One of the more distinguishing attributes of Mr. Justice Robins has not simply been his pursuit of justice for the sake of justice, but his humanistic personality and ability to temper the law with a sense of compassion,” something Robins made abundantly clear with his impassioned work on behalf of students.
His commitment to the law and his deep concern for those around him defined Robins both personally and professionally. His colleagues, friends and family will feel his absence deeply. Thankfully, his remarkable legacy will continue, guiding and inspiring the professions that we cherish.
Marvin Zuker is a provincial court judge in Toronto. He holds the rank of associate professor at OISE/UT. Justice Zuker is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Bloorview School Authority.