Skip to main content

Lawyer Richard Peck in 2008.JONATHAN HAYWARD

In one respect, Richard Peck seems an unlikely choice as lead lawyer for Meng Wanzhou, an executive at the world’s biggest telecommunications company who faces extradition to the United States on fraud charges that could land her in jail for years.

He does not use a cellphone.

If that makes the 71-year-old seem out of step with his client, let alone the times, it also fits with the description from his admirers – who include some of Canada’s leading legal lights – as an old-fashioned English-style barrister, with a watch dangling from his vest pocket. Dignified, highly literate, choosing his words carefully, able to control a room. A presence.

His refusal to use a cellphone reflects deep personal convictions about privacy: that autonomy can’t exist without it, and that liberty can’t exist without autonomy. He has maintained his own autonomy, choosing not to adopt the decades-old technology even while representing the daughter of the founder of Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd., the second-largest smartphone maker in the world.

“As I saw people using them more and more, and the way they use them – they get lax with them, usage brings a laxity, so you use them in taxi cabs, in elevators, you stand on street corners chatting away, and I’ve seen lawyers do this and I think, ‘This is just wrong, you can’t be doing this,’” he told The Globe and Mail in an interview a year ago. (He and the other three main members of Ms. Meng’s Canadian legal team have declined to give interviews since then.)

“I just always had a concern about the potential for lack of privacy, some notion that what you say on a cell phone is not necessarily protected. I’d seen too many people before the courts being convicted on intercepted communications.”

Mr. Peck, widely seen as the dean of British Columbia’s criminal-defence bar, heads a low-key team of lawyers (three based in Vancouver) who are better known for working well with others than for big personalities.

David Martin is a go-to lawyer for white-collar crime, well known in legal circles in the U.S. as a quarterback of teams in crossborder cases, and viewed as a creative legal thinker with street smarts.

Eric Gottardi, a partner in Mr. Peck’s law firm, Peck and Company Barristers, advocated for Barrett Jordan in the 2016 case in which the Supreme Court of Canada established new time limits for criminal proceedings.

Scott Fenton, the only member based outside Vancouver – in Toronto – knows the system from the other side, as a former federal prosecutor. All four are experienced in extradition cases.

What sets Mr. Peck above other criminal lawyers? In part, his wide experience in “some of the most complex and challenging criminal cases of our times,” Vancouver lawyers William Smart and Jeff Campbell wrote five years ago in a legal publication, The Advocate. In part, his decades of contribution to the legal community, overseeing a national education program for criminal-defence lawyers and publishing scores of articles. And in part, his judgment, courtesy and ethics.

“Clients may not seek out someone because of their high principles ethically, but it means he has garnered tremendous respect in the judiciary for the submissions he makes,” Toronto lawyer Mark Sandler said.

“He will never resort to personal attacks and will not embarrass his opponents.” said lawyer Frank Addario, also of Toronto. “He engages in a very factual, reasoned, articulate approach. It’s low-key but very effective.”

Still, in spite of his courteousness, he has not been one to shy from a fight.

As a young athlete, he competed in the toughest contact sports – amateur boxing (heavyweight division), rugby and football. Later, he ran marathons.

"Law can be a competitive business – trial work – and he’s a competitive guy,” Mr. Smart said in an interview. “It’s not easy to finish a marathon.”

As a criminal-defence lawyer, he gravitated toward tough cases and unpopular clients. One of these was Ajaib Singh Bagri, accused of mass murder in Canada’s biggest terrorism case, the 1985 Air India bombing (he was acquitted in 2005). Another was the country’s most notorious child pornographer, Robin Sharpe, whom he represented at the Supreme Court of Canada in 2001, arguing that he should not be punished for stories he wrote and kept at home. (The court agreed.)

Brought in as a special prosecutor when former Ontario attorney-general Michael Bryant had a deadly encounter with a cyclist, he made a decision in 2010, unpopular among some members of the public, to drop all charges.

He is also known for having a large personal library and a collection of first editions, and spends his evenings reading.

“I read just about everything,” said Mr. Peck, who studied law at the University of British Columbia. “I love poetry, I love biography, I like good fiction, I like some of the mystery writers that are coming out of Western Europe, I like the classics. My passion is reading, outside the law, and inside the law, of course.”

Mr. Addario said the last time he saw Mr. Peck, the B.C. lawyer gave him a book of his favourite seasonal poems that he had personally assembled. He also said Mr. Peck’s love of literature spills over into the courtroom: “He is famous in his oral advocacy for pithy quotes, historical references and salient analogies.”

Mr. Peck also appears to some to be a perfectionist. When he headed the lawyers’ education program, Mr. Sandler recalls, “Richard would send back your paper with a correction to Footnote 34 because a word was misused.”

Ms. Meng’s case has in some ways pitted East against West, with China accusing Canada of accepting a politically motivated extradition request from the U.S., and jailing two Canadians in apparent reprisal. But her lead counsel has made no secret of his passionate belief in Canadian democracy and what he described in a legal journal as its “remarkable array of individual and societal freedoms and liberties."

And for him, liberty includes the right to be left alone. People ask him how he manages in the modern world without a cellphone. “And I say I have a landline at home," he said in the interview. "You can reach me there. We have an office number. You can reach me there. It’s 24 hours. That’s how. I like to say I’m never more than 24 hours away from a phone call.”