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Lawyer Clayton Ruby speaks to the Globe and Mail editorial board in Toronto on July 24, 2013.Kevin Van Paassen/the Globe and Mail

Civil rights lawyer Clayton Ruby was driven by a simple rule instilled in him by his parents: If he saw something wrong in the world, he must try to fix it. There was never any “should,” because the way he saw it, he had no option.

From counseling American draft dodgers in 1967 at an upstart sidewalk clinic in Toronto’s Yorkville neighbourhood to arguing cases before the august Supreme Court of Canada, Mr. Ruby always did what he knew was right. Sometimes he won. Often he didn’t. But no matter the outcome, he was never distracted from continuing the fight in court and outside of it, for he knew that judicial decisions, no matter their length, tone and detail, were not fixed in time forever.

He said as much in an interview with SEE Change magazine six years ago, while discussing the impact of R. vs. Askov, a 1990 Supreme Court decision he won regarding an accused’s Charter rights to a speedy trial. One would think that would have been the end of it – a significant moment enshrined in law that should have guaranteed timely prosecutions of all those facing trial. Instead, Mr. Ruby noted, since then the principle has been niggled away, with Crowns coming before judges to plead for “little extensions” because the charges are too serious to be thrown out, and to label a months-long delay for disclosure that “could have been in three days” as “neutral time.”

“Over the intervening years, judges have accepted this,” he said. “Now, it’s a classic example of reform of the law though judicial decision being absolutely useless.”

Mr. Ruby, a member of the Order of Canada known for his eloquent arguments, prodigious work ethic and bright-coloured socks worn under elegantly tailored suits, died Tuesday at Toronto General Hospital of complications of an aneurysm. He was 80 years old, a gourmet and oenophile with a penchant for Diet Pepsi over ice, whose only regret was that his family would be sad when he was gone.

He lived as he was driven to, on his own terms, with a strict moral code, an abiding love for his wife, two daughters, their partners and children, and absolutely no compromise.

“He told me as much,” his older daughter, Emma Ruby-Sachs, said. “Dad set such a high bar for everyone, for he was an example of how much one person can do. From equality rights to arbitrary detentions, the environment, animal welfare, the right for women to choose and the right to die, he touched and helped shape them all.”

Kate Best, his younger daughter, recalls going to school in the winter of 1988 when her father was working for then federal New Democrat MP Svend Robinson just after the latter had come out as gay.

“I was 7 or 8 years old, and Dad had me wear a pin that read ‘I am Svend Robinson,’ a huge political statement on my little shirt,” she said. “I don’t remember other kids reacting to it, but I do remember one teacher saying ‘Well, you’re going to be in big trouble if you are.’

“Issues like these were so uncomplicated for him. You were right, or not.”

Clayton Charles Ruby was born in Toronto on Feb. 6, 1942, the elder of Lou and Marie (née Bochner) Ruby’s two children. His father was a self-made man, the owner of a printing company who had got his start in Montreal as a brash, determined eight-year-old selling newspapers on street corners.

From the start, young Clayton – his mother chose the name after seeing it listed in the credits of an old Western movie – was smart. After finishing high school at Forest Hill Collegiate, he earned a BA from York University in 1963 and a law degree from the University of Toronto six years later, when he was also called to the bar.

In 1967, while still a law student, he teamed up with some young lawyers, including his future law partner Paul Copeland, to run what they called the Village Bar. At first, it was an outdoor table and chairs operation outside the Grab Bag convenience store on Yorkville Avenue – a place where they dispensed free legal advice to everyone from draft dodgers to hippies who were being harassed by police. That first year, they were called into the Law Society of Upper Canada and told to cease and desist at once because the work they were doing only served to confuse the public and put the entire practice of criminal law into disrepute.

Clayton Ruby on March 18, 1988.Zoran Milich/The Globe and Mail

“We were told that people didn’t know if we were lawyers or law students,” Mr. Copeland said. “The next year, we moved inside and continued what we had been doing before.”

During that time, Mr. Ruby and Mr. Copeland wrote a book called Law Law Law, published in 1971 by the House of Anansi Press. At 116 pages, it was billed as a “down-to-earth manual for citizens on the laws most frequently encountered,” from driving to drinking, apartment living and drugs.

Two years after the book was published, Mr. Ruby got a Master of Laws from the University of California, Berkeley.

In 1976, after splitting from Mr. Copeland, he entered into a professional partnership with lawyer Marlys Edwardh that would last more than three decades. In recent years he has been with the partnership Ruby Shiller Enenajor DiGiuseppe.

Usually, Mr. Ruby was at the vanguard of societal change, a man who picked his cases because they appealed to his finely honed sense of right and wrong. There were the cases of the wrongfully convicted, such as Guy Paul Morin, and his representation of physician and abortion rights advocate Henry Morgentaler so that women who needed abortions could get them safely without being harassed by protesters as they entered clinics.

There was Michelle Douglas, who was discharged from the Canadian Armed Forces in 1989 as part of a discriminatory purge of its LGBTQ members. At first, she was reluctant to pursue a claim, but with Mr. Ruby at her side, they fought the military for three years, until it agreed to settle, awarding her $100,000 in the wake of a Federal Court of Canada ruling that men and women could no longer be barred from serving in the forces because they were homosexual.

There were cases involving the environment and the plight of an elephant named Lucy at the Edmonton Zoo. There were cases involving freedom of expression, including one against the Lubicon Cree of Alberta for instigating a consumer boycott over a land claim.

And there were cases of police misconduct and brutality, including one in 1988, when the mother of Michael Wade Lawson, a Black teenager shot in the back of his head as he fled from Peel police officers in a stolen car, hired Mr. Ruby to push for a full and fair investigation. The result was the creation, in 1990, of the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), which was meant to conduct independent investigations into violent incidents involving police. Yet, more than a quarter century later, the lawyer would underscore that the fight for justice never ends with a particular decision or law.

“I think most people recognized [the SIU] from the beginning as a showpiece, a fake organization,” Mr. Ruby told the Toronto Star in 2016. “It was never intended to do anything more than pretend that something was changing.”

Jill Copeland, an Ontario Appeal Court judge who articled with Mr. Ruby, remembers him as a teacher and mentor who taught the trade by giving young lawyers real work to do on cases, from conducting cross-examinations to arguing appeals. “It was an incredible way of learning,” she said. “The criminal bar has not always been welcoming to women. To him, [gender] didn’t make a difference.”

James Lockyer, one of the country’s most prominent criminal lawyers, who specializes in fighting wrongful conviction cases, noted that Mr. Ruby always sounded decisive. “He was wont to talk in short sentences very quickly and you wanted to hang on to his every word,” he said. “You can’t be a better advocate than that.”

Former federal justice minister Irwin Cotler, who first bonded with Mr. Ruby when they were both attending anti-war protests in the mid-1960s, said he will always remember his friend’s sense of humour, even when they were talking about the most serious of issues.

“We were in the trenches at all times, whether it was over wrongful convictions or other areas of criminal justice,” Mr. Cotler recalled. “Although we didn’t see each other often, every time we did, it was if we hadn’t been apart. Absence makes you realize how important that friendship is. The world was a better place because he was always there for what needed to be engaged. We will be at a loss without him.”

And somehow, amidst his hectic professional schedule, without fail, Mr. Ruby managed to take summers off from the courts to become the primary caregiver for his daughters at their cottage in the Kawarthas as their mother, Ontario Superior Court Justice Harriet Sachs, had to remain in the city to work. He would sit there, a work-at-home dad with all his files spread around him, ensuring the girls had the most fun, carefree and sugar-filled time possible.

“That was him all over,” Ms. Best said. “He sucked as much joy out of life as he could, for as long as he could, while changing the world at the same time.”

In addition to his wife and daughters, Mr. Ruby leaves his daughters’ partners, a sister, Brenda, and two grandchildren.