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Saturday August 8, 2015

Influential lawyer left mark on Toronto

His involvement with a notorious city hall scandal led to dramatic changes in the rules governing municipal oversight

Special to The Globe and Mail

Long before he became widely known as Ontario's most influential lobbyist and then a key player in a notorious procurement scandal that rocked Toronto City Hall in the early 2000s, Jeffery Lyons was a lawyer forging his reputation as a consumers' rights crusader who recognized how the threat of class-action lawsuits, then an American specialty, might change Canada's legal landscape.

It was the early 1970s, and the Hamilton-born lawyer and Tory fundraiser had taken on a case representing more than 4,600 owners of a dodgy General Motors compact car known as the Firenza. The vehicles manufactured in 1971 and 1972 suffered from steering and brake deficiencies, fuel line leaks, faulty transmissions and drive shaft malfunctions.

The U.S. car industry in the 1960s had to defend itself against massive liability lawsuits, which led to drastic changes in warranties and new consumer protection laws. Mr. Lyons's long-time friend Paul Godfrey, former Metro Toronto chairman who is now president and CEO of Postmedia, joked that with that case, he was becoming Canada's Ralph Nader.

(Mr. Nader wrote the 1965 book Unsafe At Any Speed, a blistering critique of the auto industry that singled out the Chevrolet Corvair for its poor safety record.)

The problem for Mr. Lyons was that, outside Quebec, provincial laws didn't permit class-action lawsuits. Undaunted, he pressed ahead - the GM lawsuit was Canada's first consumer class action - and won a few key lower court victories before the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously grounded his gambit in 1983.

By then, Mr. Lyons had taken on, as clients, the owners of Ford vehicles prone to rusting. But he advised them to press their case in the court of public opinion instead of getting drawn into a costly legal battle with a deeppocketed multinational. It proved to be savvy advice, and the carmaker offered compensation.

The Ontario government, meantime, tabled legislation allowing class-action lawsuits.

Mr. Lyons died on July 26 after suffering a heart attack while out for a jog near his cottage in Jackson's Point, Ont. "He was lean and athletic and worked out," says Toronto Sun columnist SueAnn Levy, Mr. Lyons's niece. "It was just one of those things - very sudden and sad." He was 75.

Besides paving the way for consumer lawsuits, Mr. Lyons's legacy is complex.

By the mid-1980s, Mr. Lyons had built not only a formidable legal reputation - a Queen's Counsel, he served as a bencher for the Law Society of Upper Canada from 1983 to 1991 - but also a client list that included all sorts of firms that wanted to do business with government.

Thanks to his extensive contacts in both the Conservative and Liberal parties - his law partner was a powerful Liberal backroom operative named David Smith - Mr. Lyons was known as an "expediter," as an admiring 1986 Metro Toronto Business Journal article put it.

"He was the go-to guy in the municipal consulting world," says Bruce Davis, a rival Liberal lobbyist and former school trustee, who adds that Mr. Lyons was always "classy" and "gentlemanly to a fault."

Yet his vast network of political, business and personal affiliations began to blur, and Mr. Lyons also came to be known as someone who worked both sides of the political street - helping candidates raise impressive sums for their war chests and then turning around to lobby those same politicians on behalf of corporate clients seeking government business.

After details of an opaque computer leasing deal approved by Toronto City Council in 1999 came to light, his approach to public business was subjected to intense scrutiny during a $19-million public inquiry. "Rather than educating his clients about the city's processes, giving strategic advice, and advocating their products, Jeffery Lyons was essentially an influence peddler," wrote Justice Denise Bellamy in the inquiry's hard-hitting final report.

Jeffery Lyons was born in Hamilton on May 6, 1940, the second child of Irwin and Frances Lyons.

His father owned a chain of supermarkets, Lyons Food Mart, which he later sold to IGA. Irwin had an entrepreneurial bent and a conservative outlook, recalls Ms. Levy, whose mother, Judy, is Mr. Lyons's older sister, "It was in the family's roots," she says, noting that Irwin was a product of the Depression.

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