SIMS: Wally Libis was recognized as a defense attorney. And as a friend

Criminal defense work was not just Wally Libis’ profession, it was his purpose.

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Criminal defense work was not just Wally Libis’ profession, it was his purpose.

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That’s how he saw each day he spent at his office and in the London courthouse, with his worn leather satchel full of files slung over his shoulder. His clients loved him. And when he spoke, the judges listened.

“Frankly, your honor,” Libis said of a doomed client, “he didn’t get many aces.”

Libis, who was born in Latvia during World War II and came to Canada as a child with his family from a refugee camp, understood his own good fortune.

“Because he got all the aces, he was forced to do what he could for the ones that weren’t,” said Bob Sheppard, one of Libis’ closest friends and colleague. criminal lawyer.

Libis, 79, died on Tuesday from an illness. His death sent a shock through the close-knit London courthouse community where Libis was a friend and mentor.

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What hit so hard was the loss of a pillar of the criminal bar, who showed such compassion and expertise in his work. Libis’ practice spanned five decades and at one time he was London’s busiest criminal barrister.

Most notable among his clients was Russell Johnson, the 1970s serial killer who enlarged the balconies of apartment buildings to find victims. Libis was also one of the attorneys involved in the Helmut Buxbaum case, representing Robert Barrett, a small-time drug dealer who testified that he had been hired by Buxbaum to murder Buxbaum’s wife, Hanna.

Libis’s advocacy has gone far beyond the biggest cases and dozens of murder trials. Clients gravitated to him and they trusted his practical legal approach.

“He didn’t speak to them like a lawyer,” Sheppard said, “He spoke to them like a wise friend. He didn’t give them legal advice, he urged them to make the right decision, to do what was right in the general sense while doing what was right for themselves.

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“He had more compassion for people and he treated them – from the first day he met them until the last day he saw them – the same way, that is with dignity and compassion. said Ontario Court Judge John Skowronski, another close friend.

Libis was born Valdis Libis and he was immensely proud of his Latvian roots. His family settled in Hamilton, and he would often tell the story of his mother sending him off to wear lederhosen on the first day of school.

He made his mark as a football and hockey athlete in high school, McMaster University and Osgoode Hall Law School.

In London, he made friends and gained respect through pick-up hockey games. “Wally was a good player and he was a wonderful lawyer who handled tough cases,” said Peter Hockin, a retired Superior Court judge who was often on the ice with Libis.

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“Whether Wally was in a courtroom or a dressing room, my time with him was always a place where I learned something and grew to appreciate his company ever more. It’s a sad day for so many people,” he said.

Retired Middlesex County prosecutor Geoff Beasley was a close friend even though they were on opposite sides of the courtroom. Lawyers traditionally call each other “friends” in court, but “he was actually more my friend outside of the courtroom,” Beasley said.

Those closest to him say Libis never went halfway on anything. He loved adventure, whether it was skiing, mountain biking or motorcycling. He was always the first local lawyer to try out a new computer program or device. He had his own sense of fashion. Her love of snacks became a joke among her friends.

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You could almost hear his heart swell when he spoke of his wife Lorrie and his three children, Jeff and his wife Kim, Michael and his fiancee Caroline, and Jennifer. Her phone was filled with photos of her grandson and granddaughter.

“In Wally’s world there was family, there were his clients and then there was him,” Skowronski said.

Libis was still practicing before his death, but he had reduced his workload.

On Wednesday, London barrister Anthony Little, another friend of Libis, was in the Ontario court’s virtual adjournment courtroom. When he was done with his cases, Little asked to speak at the Libis session.

“I said I would be very sad not to see Wally Libis on this screen,” he said. Several other lawyers intervened. Many had tears.

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