There was only one law school on Justice Kofi Barnes’ radar after he attained his first degree from Trent University.
“I just wanted to get into law school. I lived in Peterborough and the closest schools were the University of Toronto and Osgoode Law School at York University,” he said. “Osgoode however stood out as I had heard that their curriculum really focused on social justice issues. That appealed to me.”
Graduating in 1993, Barnes was called to the Bar two years later and appointed to the Ontario Court of Justice in 2004. Last year, he was elevated to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.
Barnes was among five York University alumni honoured last week with Bryden Awards for extraordinary achievements.
“I didn’t realize the impact Osgoode had on me until after I left,” he said. “I received the type of legal education that allowed me to think outside the box to recognize that social justice matters and also understand that the law really governs human behaviour. Human beings evolve and the law has to evolve with it. And, for the law to continue to have the respect of the community, the law has to be responsive to the community. Osgoode helped me to learn how to sort of step back, look at the big picture and continue to find ways where I can inspire our community through law.”
Established 14 years ago to honour the memory of the university’s alumni association founder and first Board of Governors alumni chair, Bruce Bryden, who graduated in 1964, awards are presented annually in the Outstanding Contribution, Local Hero, Redefine the Possibilities and The One to Watch categories.
Barnes was honoured in the “Redefine the Possibilities” category primarily for starting the Durham Mental Health & Drug Treatment Court in Oshawa in 2006 and co-founding Canada’s first drug treatment court in Toronto that provides intensive, court-supervised treatment to drug-addicted offenders who commit non-violent crimes related to their addiction.
“The kinds of things we did when we started to do then were things that were unheard of,” Barnes said of the pioneering drug treatment court. “We were trying to somehow find a way to fuse therapeutic interventions with the general court system. It was supposed to be career suicide. It was the kind of stuff nobody wanted to be involved in. So to see that you are being recognized by a large community makes you recognize that these ideas are gaining ground and are finding roots in society at large.”
Not too many people would have bet on Barnes becoming a distinguished member of Canada’s legal profession when his scholarship was withdrawn after the second year at Trent and his girlfriend, who was already a mother of three, became pregnant.
At the time, he was faced with two difficult choices. He could abandon his role as a father, as some of his friends at the time suggested, and return to his native Ghana in disgrace because he had failed to complete his university education, or he could stay here and seek a job to support his family and then return to school. He wisely chose the latter.
In addition to his extensive criminal law experience, Barnes has served in various administrative capacities, including team leader of the Federal Prosecution Service, the Toronto Superior Court and the Ontario Court of Justice prosecution teams.
A member of the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers and founding president of the Canadian Association of Drug Treatment Court Professionals, he has also provided training internationally under the sponsorship of the United Nations and the Organization of American States.