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Mary-Clare MacKinnon

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.” – Robert Frost

Call to the Bar, Nova Scotia, 1987

B.A., (Music) Dalhousie University, 1975

B. Music Education, Dalhousie University, 1976

LL.B., Dalhousie University, 1983

Mary-Clare MacKinnon grew up in the coal-mining town of Glace Bay, Cape Breton.  Activism from her father, a labourer in the coal company, inspired her to want to become a lawyer even at a young age.  But, it was as a young teenager, when she read a book about Steven Truscott – the 14- year old boy who had been convicted of murder and sentenced to hang –  that had been serialized in the Toronto Star, that she knew what she would do.

Making the decision to become a lawyer was not common for a young girl. It was still in the time when women were expected to become nurses, not doctors or to become secretaries, not lawyers.   Mary-Clare recalls telling the guidance counsellor at the Catholic High School she attended that she wanted to become a lawyer and the response was, “girls can’t be lawyers”.  That was advice that Mary-Clare didn’t follow!

She was also a budding musician and there was also a music career to consider so Mary-Clare attended Dalhousie University in 1972 to study music where she subsequently received a B.A. with a major in music (piano) and a B. Music  Education (choral conducting).  She pursued her career in Calgary, Alta where she taught at Mount Royal College, gave recitals and continued with her music studies.

It wasn’t until 1983 that Mary-Clare found herself back at Dalhousie University Law School to realize her dream of becoming a lawyer.  After first year, she was one of a dozen law students given the opportunity to be a constable in the R.C.M.P. for the summer.  Mary-Clare was attached to her home town detachment. There was a police strike that summer and the RCMP dealt with that along with the regular policing.  It was a fascinating look into the operation of a police force that she never forgot and which continued to help her when dealing with many police services in her legal career.

After graduation and call to the Bar in 1987, she became an associate with a general practice law firm in Cape Breton and, from there, to Ontario where she worked in private practice and taught high school in Bowmanville.  It was while there that Mary-Clare did some duty counsel work at the Oshawa courthouse.  The high volume and fast pace was exciting and led to a career of over 15 years at Legal Aid Ontario, for most of that time, as supervisor.

In the bail court, one is reminded everyday how important it is to be released from custody when someone is charged.  When a client is remanded from one day to the next and then to the next, day after day, waiting for family members to show up to court, it is debilitating for them.  For the lawyer, it requires imaginative, creative thinking.  A solution for a client who has a good job and supportive family is not going to work for a client who might be from another province, maybe another country.  That solution is not going to work for the client who is dealing with addiction issues and has no one to bail them out.  This is what spurred Mary-Clare to approach the Toronto Bail Program to establish a satellite office in Durham.   The Bail Program is an agency that helps supervise those who have no one to sign for bail.  They also recognize the effect of release from custody on a client’s case.  Not being released often paints a client into a corner where they plead guilty to an offence when they might have a defence or maybe even didn’t commit.

As Supervisory Duty Counsel, Mary-Clare assisted with bail hearings almost everyday during the week and on weekends for clients in Durham as well as those from Peterborough, Lindsay, and Cobourg.  This work requires fast assessment of a client’s situation and background as well as the legal issues:  what is the basis of the charges?  How strong is the evidence?  Does the client have a criminal record and, if so, how does it affect the likelihood of bail?  Mary-Clare’s experience enables her to connect with the client quickly in order to get the information necessary to run a bail hearing.  Bail court also requires an efficient assessment of the sureties:  are they credible?  Are they suitable?  Do they have assets that will be accepted by the court?  Is there a reasonable plan that can be put together?

There is a saying that “timing is everything” and that is no more true than in bail court.  In the 15 years that Mary-Clare was Supervisory duty counsel, she amassed a wealth of experience in bail court that allows her to quickly evaluate the case against the client – strengths and weaknesses – and put forward a plan that will best respond.

Mary-Clare is delighted to now form part of the Aitken Robertson team.

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