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In Memoriam, Judith Wahl, Elder Law Pioneer

Sadly, Judith Wahl passed today. Her passing is a tremendous loss for the legal and elder community. Our condolences to Judith’s friends, her family, her ACE family and to all of those whose hearts and lives she touched and made better through her relentless passion and advocacy of the rights of older adults. Judith will be sadly missed by her friends at WEL Partners.

In 1984, a new legal clinic, the Advocacy Centre for the Elderly “ACE”, with a Toronto address, was established and Judith Wahl became its founding Executive Director. She held that position for nearly 33 years, until 2017, when she retired from ACE and established her elder consulting firm, Wahl Elder Consulting.

Judith graduated from the University of Toronto (B.A. Honours English, 1974) and from Osgoode Hall Law School (LL.B., 1977) and was called to the bar of Ontario in 1979. Judith was in private practice for approximately 6 years before joining and leading ACE.

Judith has been widely recognized throughout Ontario, Canada and internationally, for her exceptional achievements, distinguished service, and significant contributions in serving older adults in Ontario through law and legal services, advocacy, teaching, writing, speaking, legislative reform initiatives, mentoring, volunteering, and pro bono work.

When ACE was established, elder law was an unknown field of practice in Ontario. In every way, Judith Wahl blazed the trail for countless elder law practitioners who would follow in her footsteps. Judith was always prepared to take on individuals in positions of power who did not recognize the rights of seniors, and the value of elder law work as a legitimate area of practice. Judith, of necessity, was born into the nascent field of elder law as a warrior who had to establish her ground and the rights of her older-adult clients every step of the way. She was a fierce advocate for the rights of seniors.

Judith very quickly oversaw and guided the development of ACE to a staff of five lawyers and three support staff, which very nearly equals its full staff complement now, more than 37 years later. More importantly, she quickly laid the groundwork for the practice of elder law as a discrete discipline, with expertise in the areas of elder abuse, federal income-security pensions (OAS, GIS, GAINS and CPP), retirement homes, long-term care homes, consent, capacity, and substitute decision-making, health care consent and treatment decision-making, and other areas of elder law. Judith Wahl was instrumental in breaking ground and paving the way in each of these areas of practice from the perspective of lawyers representing the older adult whose rights are in issue.

Judith was appointed to the Attorney General’s Committee on Substitute Decision-Making for Mentally Incapable Persons [the Fram Committee], which from 1985-88 held discussions that developed the initial form and content of what is now the Substitute Decisions Act [SDA]. The Fram Committee Report formed the basis of the SDA, the Consent to Treatment Act (which is the predecessor to the Health Care Consent Act) and some elements of the Advocacy Act (which has since been repealed). This was the first of many occasions when Judith would become actively and constructively involved in law reform to advance the interests of older people in Ontario.

In 1987, Judith was appointed as a member of the O’Sullivan Committee for the Review of Advocacy for Vulnerable Adults in Ontario. The O’Sullivan Committee Report, You’ve Got a Friend, supplied much of the initiative for the enactment of the Advocacy Act and the creation of the Advocacy Commission, which was later disbanded, before it became operational after a 1995 change of government.

When the SDA was enacted in 1992, it had a three-year implementation period before it came into effect in 1995. From 1992-95, Judith was appointed by the Attorney General to be the chair of the Interim Advisory Committee for the Implementation of the Substitute Decisions Act at the Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee. This was an immense responsibility. The statutory rights of personal autonomy balanced with substitute decision-making were not yet within the public consciousness nor within the knowledge and expertise of the Ontario bar.

Judith led the Interim Advisory Committee as it oversaw the reorganization and transformation of the office of the former Public Trustee into the new Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee. She worked closely with a broad group of representatives from advocacy organizations, service providers, the professions and government to shape the development of policies for how the Public Guardian and Trustee would apply the law and act in accordance with its new responsibilities. The Interim Advisory Committee also provided important advice about the development of the guidelines for capacity assessments. In the words of one government advisor who worked closely with Judith in those years, the work of the Committee was challenging and demanding of one’s time, and Judith chaired the Interim Advisory Committee diligently, with fairness and diplomacy, ensuring that all members’ voices were heard, and input was valued. Judith’s work within this Committee could be seen as among the first of her many achievements in the practice of elder law in Ontario.

Throughout this same period, Judith led test-case litigation that strongly influenced the recognition and enforcement of the rights of retirement home residents as tenants, and specifically under what are now the care home provisions of the Residential Tenancies Act. New legislation had been enacted that required the provision of a Care Home Information Package [CHIP] for retirement home tenants, and imposed requirements on the landlord’s ability to increase the costs of meals and care services. Large institutional landlords denied that they were subject to the new legislation, until under Judith’s leadership ACE initiated test-case litigation that settled the principle that the retirement homes were tenancies. Until then, there had been much uncertainty in the application of the law, to the detriment of older-adult retirement home tenants.

Under Judith’s leadership, ACE established an institutional advocacy position by hiring a lawyer to work as an Institutional Advocate on behalf of long-term care home residents and other institutionalized seniors. Due to the foresight of Judith ACE is the leader in the advancement of rights for long-term care home residents and other institutionalized seniors, where there are now two institutional advocate lawyers due to the volume of work.

In connection with this work, Judith initiated and managed the development and publication by ACE of Long-Term Care Homes in Ontario: The Advocates Manual, which was widely used as a comprehensive reference guide in the absence of other comparable materials prior to the enactment of the Long-Term Care Homes Act. At that time, long-term care homes were governed by divergent and sometimes conflicting legislation found in three separate statutes: the Nursing Homes Act, the Homes for the Aged and Rest Homes Act and the Charitable Institutions Act. Ontario was completely bereft of any user guides or educational materials that were remotely intelligible to the legal profession, let alone the public, until ACE published the manual.

Judith appeared before the Supreme Court of Canada on behalf of ACE, intervening in a successful appeal from the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal under the Adult Protection Act in Nova Scotia (Minister of Health) v. J.J., 2005 SCC 12 (CanLII), [2005] 1 SCR 177.

Judith was the co-chair, organizer and facilitator of the First National Conference on Elder Abuse and Crime, co-sponsored by ACE and Ryerson Polytechnic Institute (as it then was) with the participation of the Government of Canada in 1990. Policy and educational work on elder abuse in Canada was virtually unknown at that time.

Judith has held a long-standing relationship with law enforcement agencies, including the Toronto Police Service, where she taught a regular course on Elder Abuse in the Policing and Diversity program at the Toronto Police College for nearly a decade; with the Ontario Police College at Aylmer, where she was an organizer, facilitator and a keynote speaker at Elder Abuse Awareness and Prevention Conferences for police forces from throughout Ontario, and which was then an entirely new initiative for law enforcement agencies; and as an organizer and regular participant in LEAPS — Law Enforcement Agencies Protecting Seniors — which is an informal working group of law enforcement agencies interested in the prevention of elder abuse.

Judith, along with her colleague Jane Meadus (the ACE Institutional Advocate), poured countless hours into the review and analysis of documents, the preparation of submissions and meetings with Ontario Ministry of Health and other policymakers concerning the development of the Long-Term Care Homes Act and related regulations. At the time this legislation was developed, and perhaps since then, there has been no more knowledgeable, dedicated, and experienced advocates for the rights of long-term care home residents in Ontario than Judith Wahl and Jane Meadus, who were always united and inseparable in this work.

Judith has been widely recognized in other venues for her spectacular achievements in elder law. She is a Distinguished Fellow of the Canadian Centre for Elder Law at the British Columbia Law Institute [BCLI]. She is a recipient of the Osgoode Hall Law School Gold Key Award for Public Service (2006); of the Ontario Bar Association Award for Distinguished Service (2008); and of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal (2013).

Judith is a Senior Fellow of the National Institute on Aging and was a member of the Geriatric and Long-Term Care Review Committee of the Office of the Chief Corner of Ontario. Judith has a long record of distinguished service to the Canadian Bar Association and the Ontario Bar Association. She was a member of the CBA National Elder Law section executive from 2007-15 and twice the section chair — from 2007-09 and 2014-15. Judith was elected a member at large of the OBA Health Law section executive from 1996-98, 2004-06 and 2020-21. She was also elected as a member at large of the OBA Elder Law section in 2020-21.

Judith has demonstrated extraordinary commitment to the community at large, outside of her work with the CBA and the OBA. She was a member of the Board of Directors of the Ontario Gerontology Association [OGA] from 1998-2001, and she has regularly presented on gerontological issues at the OGA annual conferences. She was a Vice-Chair, and a member of the founding Board of the National Initiative for the Care of the Elderly [NICE] network from 2006-10. She was a creator of a Consent and Capacity Tool produced by NICE for distribution to health practitioners, their patients, and the public. She has been a member of the Mental Health Legal Committee — an informal coalition of lawyers advocating for the rights of persons with mental health and psychiatric disabilities — from the time it was formed in 2000 to this date. She organized and helped develop elder abuse Community Response Networks under a program funded by the Ontario Trillium foundation in urban, rural, and indigenous communities throughout Ontario, which successfully led to the foundation and funding of Elder Abuse Ontario [now Elder Abuse Prevention Ontario].

Judith has been a teacher and mentor to her many students at McMaster University and the University of Toronto, where she taught elder law courses to MSW students in the school of social work, and to the many law students and volunteer lawyers who under her leadership served with ACE.

On behalf of the legal community, we wish to thank Judith for all her endless commitment and innumerate initiatives and for being a fearless advocate for those who are vulnerable. Thank you to Graham Webb, and Jane Meadus for the historical information compiled on Judith. Our heartfelt condolences.


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