In a ceremony that Court of Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Martel Popescul said was a first for Yorkton in the Court’s history, a new justice was sworn in July 15 at the courthouse on Darlington Street.
Mr. Justice Donald Layh of Langenburg took the oaths of office and allegiance on the bench in courtroom number one before Popsecul, Chief Justice of Saskatchewan Robert Richards, a dozen Queen’s Bench justices and Provincial Court judges, friends and family and virtually every practicing lawyer in Yorkton.
Founder of Layh & Associates in Langenburg and, later, Russell, MB, the new justice is well known in southeast Saskatchewan and southwest Manitoba particularly in the areas of debtor-creditor, personal property, bankruptcy and insolvency law.
Supreme Court Victories
Perhaps his greatest claim to legal fame, however, was two cases he argued all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) and set a precedent in favour of provincial lenders over national banks.
Both cases involved farm machinery for which local credit unions and national banks held security interests. In both cases the credit unions’ interests pre-dated the banks’, but with benefit of the federal Bank Act, the banks were able to seize the property, a remedy not available to provincial lenders.
Layh advised his clients to make applications for priority to the Court of Queen’s Bench, which they lost.
Undeterred, Layh convinced the credit unions to take their cases to the Saskatchewan Court of Appeals, which reversed the lower court’s decision. The banks, however, succeeded in bringing the cases to the SCC, which upheld the Saskatchewan court’s ruling.
In his remarks following the swearing-in and congratulations from representatives from various legal organizations, Layh reminisced about his experience with the SCC with humility and reverence.
“Justice Marshall Rothstein addressed me: Mr. Layh, you say only the legislative intervention of Parliament can solve this problem with the Bank Act. Mr. Layh, what do you think Parliament should do?’
“What I thought was, ‘me? You want me to tell you what I think Parliament should do? Hey, I’m just Don Layh from Langenburg, Saskatchewan and there are 300-odd smart brains just up the hill from here.’
“You see, in Canada, apparently it does not matter whether you’re a sole practitioner from Saskatchewan, you may be asked by the highest court in the country what you think the highest legislature in the country should do to resolve a national problem.
“I left that experience thinking we indeed live in the finest county in the world where the rule of law is held in great esteem and available to all.”
Donald Henry Layh was born July 15, 1954, the second of four children to Henry and Elsie Layh, who had immigrated as children from a small village in eastern Russia—now part of the Republic of Moldova.
His grandparents, father and aunt landed first in Melville then set up a homestead in southern Saskatchewan between the east and west blocks of Grasslands National Park. Eventually Henry would establish his own family farm on the west bank of the Assiniboine River Valley where Don was born.
After high school, Layh attended the University of Manitoba graduating with a
Bachelor of Arts in 1974 and a certificate in education in 1978.
Layh met his wife, Jan, during the summer 1973 at Clear Lake where Pearl McGonigal—who would go on to become the first woman to serve as lieutenant governor of Manitoba from 1981 to 1986—had arranged a summer job for him.
After University, the couple moved to the Layh family farm and Don taught high school in Langenburg.
They had two children, Adam and Avery. After teaching for a few years, the couple decided Don should go to law school. In his comments Tuesday afternoon the new Queen’s Bench justice acknowledged it was a joint effort saying, “We went to law school.”
He graduated from the University of Saskatchewan College of Law in 1986 with distinction and articled with Saskatoon’s Stromberg, Young, Prosser and Scharfstein. He was admitted to the Saskatchewan Bar in 1987 with the Award of Excellence for earning the top marks in the Saskatchewan bar course for that year.
In 1994, after practicing with Robertson Stromberg for seven years, the family again relocated to the family farm and Layh established his own firm in Langenburg. Avery is now a lawyer with the firm.
Also in 1994, Layh was admitted to the Manitoba Bar. He opened a second office of Layh & Associates in Russell in 2010.
During his law career he has not strayed completely from the teaching vocation. He has been an instructor for the bar admission course and is an associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan College of law.
Since 2010 he has been the chair of the Saskatchewan Law Reform Commission.
Community and Family
Layh is also active in community organizations including the Family and Friends Community Foundation, which he founded in 2003 to fund charitable causes in Langenburg, Churchbridge and Spy Hill.
He has also found time to become an author of numerous articles and two textbooks including a prodigious 600-page treatise on 100 years of farm protection legislation entitled A Legacy of Protection. This effort garnered many comments from the dozen speakers at the swearing-in ceremony.
Finally, when he does manage to eke out downtime, Layh is an avid outdoorsman engaging in kayaking, canoeing, cycling, gardening, tending horses, snowboarding and travelling with his family.
Mr. Justice Layh
All of the speakers at the swearing-in extolled the new justice’s virtues that they said will make him a reasoned and fair jurist, but perhaps the most important is gratitude.
“I also want to acknowledge the good fortune that has come my way by absolutely no credit of my own, the fact that I find myself in this great province in this great country,” he said.
“Where else but in Canada would you find two first generation Canadians whose parents received no formal education, whose first language was not English, who nearly starved on the drought-stricken prairie, be asked to represent Her Majesty, the Queen, Pearl as lieutenant governorof Manitoba and I as a justice of the Court of Queen’s Bench?
“Would my grandfather, not even a Canadian citizen as he scratched about in the hard-scrabble land, have thought that his decision to come to Canada and Saskatchewan would enable his grandchildren to participate so fully in this new country?
“These accomplishments are significant because of any special talent, for many have the requisite talent; they are significant because nothing has precluded or prevented or hindered our full participation in these important roles.
“Regrettably neither of our parents is alive to see that the compromises they made to gain a footing in this new country have so richly rewarded us.”