“There is a lack of legal services in French throughout Canada, especially in Western provinces,” says Caroline Magnan, program director of the Certificate in Common Law in French.
“More and more bilingual students are enrolled in law faculties in Western Canada, especially people who have gone through immersion, for example, and would be able to offer legal services in French but don’t have the training and might not want to go to Ottawa for the full French JD,” says Magnan.
There has been interest from many potential partners, Magnan says, but the University of Saskatchewan will be the first to offer the certificate as of next fall.
“We’re very grateful they’re the pioneers in this project.”
She says she is in talks with other universities in Alberta and British Columbia with the hope of having the CCLF up and running at those law schools in the near future.
“Our goal is to offer training to bilingual students enrolled in anglophone faculties across Canada.”
In 2009, Justice Canada released a report recommending improved training for lawyers and proposing law schools consider providing courses in both official languages. The authors of the analysis added: “Partnerships between law schools would seem entirely appropriate in the circumstances.”
As a response to this recommendation, the University of Ottawa developed the CCLF, the first program of its kind in Canada.
“I think it makes sense that it comes from the University of Ottawa given that the French common law program has existed for 40 years now. There’s the expertise — the tools — that have been developed for so long,” says Magnan.
Doug Surtees, associate dean academic at the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Law, says, “We were thrilled to have the opportunity to come on early and be the first law school to partner with them.
“Lawyers who only speak one language are at quite a disadvantage because so many of our laws are in both official languages . . . and both languages are equally authoritative. If a lawyer is able to deal with the case law but also the statute law that’s French as well as English, they really are putting all tools at their disposal and not just some of them.”
Though the program launched after standard recruitment was complete, the university is sending information on the program with acceptance letters to its new students. Those interested are invited to write a two-page essay in French indicating why they’d like to be considered for the program.
Those selected will take a mix of courses in English from the JD program and also a few courses in French common law, Surtees explains.
For example, students will take the first-year Charter portion of constitutional law, an existing course, but they’ll take it in French.
“In all likelihood, we will have to offer this as a distance education course through the University of Ottawa and provide local support,” says Surtees.
“Down the road we want and expect to have someone locally to teach in French.”
In second year, students will head to Ottawa and complete 15 credits there, although Surtees adds the goal for his university is to offer some upper-year courses in French as well.
There is also a moot court component that will allow the students to compete in French against teams from across Canada.
From the beginning, students will be paired with a mentor from the Association des juristes d’expression française de la Saskatchewan and have the opportunity to do an internship with those mentors as well.
Magnan says bilingual lawyers do some “very interesting work,” for example language rights in Saskatchewan, so the mentorship and internship options provide a “unique opportunity depending on the students’ interests to get involved with that.”
Magnan says the CCLF would have been an interesting draw when she herself was a law student.
After graduating from the French common law program at the University of Ottawa, she completed her masters at Harvard and then clerked at the Supreme Court of Canada before returning to her home province of Alberta to work in tax law in Calgary. She became bilingual legal counsel at the Court of Appeal of Alberta, and was on her second maternity leave when she was contacted by the University of Ottawa Common Law Section dean Nathalie Des Rosiers about taking on this role.
The program provides “an important leg up for certain positions that are very competitive like clerking at the Supreme Court, for example, or jobs with the federal government where having bilingual training is a big plus,” says Magnan.
These students will now belong to the ranks of more than 1,700 grads from the University of Ottawa’s French common law program, a unique network Magnan says she’s been very lucky to be part of.
“It’s a strong network all over Canada, in all fields,” she says.
In Magnan’s experience, there are a lot of students who want to continue learning in French but simply don’t have that opportunity. There are also those who financially can’t move provinces to do the full French JD in Ottawa, or whose French isn’t strong enough for that option. By offering a program where part of the caseload is in French, students can have “the best of both worlds” by gaining that special certification nobody else has, she says.
“The certificate offers a nice middle ground.”