Law Profs Weigh In

January 2013
One of the ways McGill’s law professors make important contributions to the community is by participating in the public debate on important issues. This month in particular, four of our colleagues published op-ed pieces in major Canadian papers, on issues ranging from the impact of budgetary cuts on Quebec’s law faculties (Daniel Jutras), and the SCC decision prohibiting ‘duress’ as a defense for battered women (Angela Campbell), to divorce for same-sex spouses (Robert Leckey) and prisoners’ rights  (Margaret Somerville).

Des compressions dévastatrices pour les facultés de droit

Le droit est l’un des trois piliers du caractère distinctif de la société québécoise, les autres étant la langue et la culture.  Caractérisé par un système juridique mixte où cohabitent droit civil et common law, le Québec est unique en raison de l’intégration harmonieuse des deux traditions juridiques et de la vitalité de celle possédant un statut minoritaire, en l’occurrence la tradition civiliste.

Par Sébastien Lebel-Grenier, Guy Lefebvre, Daniel Jutras et Eugénie Brouillet, doyens des facultés de droit de l’Université de Sherbrooke, l’Université de Montréal, l’Université McGill et l’Université Laval.

La Presse, Le Devoir (11 janvier 2013)

La vitalité de notre droit passe par des facultés de droit fortes.  Premièrement, bien entendu, pour assurer une relève juridique de haute qualité capable de pratiquer le droit au Québec en français ou en anglais.  Les juristes québécois, en plus d’assurer avec professionnalisme des services essentiels au bon fonctionnement du système juridique et de la société québécoise, ont essaimé et pratiquent un peu partout sur la planète.  Ils sont d’importants ambassadeurs de notre société.

De manière plus significative encore, des facultés de droit fortes sont nécessaires pour assurer le maintien du caractère distinctif de notre système juridique.  Un droit vit en grande partie par la recherche et les écrits dont il est l’inspiration.  La recherche rend possible la comparaison, la systématisation et la transformation du droit.  Elle permet de raffiner les outils à la disposition du législateur, de mieux comprendre les droits et obligations des justiciables et d’assurer une évolution cohérente et adaptée du droit.  Les chercheurs contribuent par ailleurs directement à la gouvernance et aux politiques publiques en intervenant en commission parlementaire, dans des commissions d’enquête et dans de multiples autres forums.

Des facultés de droit fortes sont d’autant plus importantes pour le Québec que la pratique juridique est en pleine mutation.  Un mouvement vers une pleine mobilité canadienne des juristes est en cours et devrait aboutir dans un avenir proche.  Occasion pour les juristes québécois, cette ouverture pourrait rapidement se transformer en menace pour le droit québécois si la vitalité continue de ce dernier n’est pas assurée.

Sous-financées

Les facultés de droit québécoises font énormément avec peu. Si on les compare à la moyenne des facultés de droit canadiennes, les facultés québécoises ont en proportion un corps professoral 25% plus petit et des moyens financiers 40% moins importants.

Les coupes de 5,2% du financement des universités annoncées par le gouvernement lors du récent dépôt des crédits budgétaires auront un effet dévastateur sur les facultés québécoises.  Comme plus de 90% de leurs dépenses sont liées aux ressources humaines, les facultés ne pourront réduire celles-ci sans sabrer dans le personnel, les programmes et la qualité de la formation qu’elles offrent.

Elles devront notamment sabrer dans les enseignements cliniques et appliqués qui sont essentiels à la qualité de la formation; ces activités permettent aux étudiants de s’approprier le rapport avec le justiciable qui sera au coeur de leur pratique future et d’appuyer directement la mission de nombreux organismes communautaires. Les bibliothèques de droit sont par ailleurs un outil essentiel à la formation de nos étudiants; elles constituent leur « laboratoire » et leur offrent une perspective globale sur l’évolution de la discipline. Ces outils de formation fondamentaux seront mis en péril, sinon sacrifiés, par effet des coupes annoncées.

Nous comprenons les contraintes liées aux finances publiques et prenons acte de la décision gouvernementale de ne pas augmenter les droits de scolarité.  La réalité est toutefois que la vitalité de la communauté juridique et du droit québécois sont tributaires de la santé des facultés de droit québécoises et que les coupes annoncées auront sur celles-ci un impact catastrophique.


Ryan case: The law alone can’t combat domestic violence

The Supreme Court has confirmed that the defence of duress is unavailable to a woman who commissioned the murder of her violent, controlling husband. The judgment disappoints those who contend that a battered woman should be allowed to defend herself from her abuser using any means without criminal liability.

By Angela Campbell

The Globe and Mail (January 21, 2013)

Such a ruling would not, however, improve circumstances for women facing domestic violence. The case warns us against investing too much faith in the criminal law as a vehicle of social change.

Twenty years ago, the Supreme Court acquitted a woman who shot and killed her violent husband as he walked away after a heated argument. Feminists and observers of Canadian criminal law welcomed that case as pathbreaking and positive. But did it really improve the lives of women endangered by spousal abuse?

Nicole Ryan, the woman accused in last week’s case, had been subject to her husband’s “reign of terror”. He had threatened the lives of her and her daughter. Despite multiple 911 calls, police refused to get involved. They saw her case as a civil problem, not a criminal one within their remit.

By its nature, criminal law reacts to harms after they happen. A court’s encounter with a woman who uses force to halt spousal violence follows long after the abuse has become endemic. It does nothing constructive on the side of prevention.

Broadening the legal defences available to women who use force as means of self-preservation is unlikely to affect domestic violence’s frequency or severity. It’s also unlikely to make law enforcement officials respond more effectively or sensitively to this pervasive social problem.

Regardless of how judges interpret the criminal law, these situations will keep recurring.

So, if the criminal law isn’t the answer, what is? An effective response to domestic violence must comprise several elements.

A first relates to social services. Those who work with survivors of domestic violence know that it is widespread and complex. If asked to list the greatest challenges confronting them, they might point to the lack of resources for women who try to leave abusive relationships, particularly with children.

Second, social workers and police must be sensitized to the scope and impact of domestic violence. They must also be reminded of their responsibility to intervene promptly and effectively in the face of reports of domestic violence. Awareness of the link between their inertia and the escalation of spousal abuse is paramount. And while police represent an arm of the criminal law, their under-enforcement of assault laws against abusers misdirects their focus to the women who fight back.

Third, prevailing attitudes about abused women exacerbate the problem. The ways we tend to view women in abusive relationships aggravate these challenges. On the one hand, such women are viewed as powerless victims. On the other, they’re seen as partly responsible for their lot if they fail to leave their partners or if they walk away and then come back.

This is an unfortunate conundrum. It overlooks completely the resourcefulness, courage and resilience abused women muster in their day-to-day lives. It also blames them, wrongfully, as a source of the violence to which they and their children are subject.

Fourth, legal reform outside the criminal law can also be useful. Consider family laws, in place in some provinces, that direct courts to consider a history of family violence in making decisions about child custody and guardianship. These can be a boon for women who wish to end an abusive partnership, but who fear losing their children to their violent spouse.

The intricate and pervasive nature of domestic violence cannot be effectively redressed by the criminal law. Regardless of what the Supreme Court had decided in last week’s ruling, any victory for abused women would have been slight at best.

Angela Campbell is a law professor at McGill University.


Message to Ottawa: Gay marriage is settled, right?

This spring will mark 10 years since the Ontario Court of Appeal allowed the first legal same-sex marriages in Canada. For most Canadians, same-sex marriage is a settled issue. The latest census data confirmed the growing diversity of Canadian families. That’s why it’s puzzling that the federal government has recently spent public money fighting the recognition of gay relationships in Canada.

By Robert Leckey

The Globe and Mail (14 January 2013, A11).

The issue is how Canadian law and authorities should treat same-sex couples who have contracted a civil partnership in the United Kingdom. Unlike Canada, the U.K. doesn’t have marriage for same-sex couples. Rather, in 2004, it introduced civil partnerships for gay and lesbian couples as a form of relationship recognition that is materially the same as marriage in everything but name.

The question reached an Ontario court after the relationship breakdown of two Canadian men joined by a U.K. civil partnership. Returned to Canada, one filed for divorce and sought spousal support. The other argued that they could not be divorced in Canada on the basis that they were not spouses under Canadian law.

Fortunately, the judge held that the two men were married for the purposes of Canadian law. She said that to find otherwise would be to perpetuate discrimination.

What’s baffling is that the federal government intervened to oppose recognizing the U.K. civil partnership in Canada. It argued that the men should return to the U.K. and launch proceedings there because their relationship effectively didn’t exist in Canada.

To be sure, same-sex unions can raise complex legal issues. A country that doesn’t allow same-sex relationships may refuse to recognize the status of couples joined elsewhere. So may a state within a federation. The patchwork of gay marriage laws in the U.S. has caused headache and heartache for many gay men and lesbians and their families.

In addition, not every form of relationship recognition is tantamount to marriage. It’s fair to be cautious about imposing obligations to which the partners hadn’t consented. But in this case, the Canadian government’s rightful path was straightforward.

Canadian law and policy recognize same-sex marriage. The U.K.’s Parliament has defended civil partnership for same-sex couples as equal to marriage. Canadian courts recognize the marriage of a straight couple married in the U.K. There is no reason why Canadian law shouldn’t recognize the union of a gay couple with a U.K. civil partnership.

The Ontario government recognized that viewing the two men as spouses was appropriate. But the federal government supported the sole alternative. Since neither federal law nor Ontario law has a civil union or civil partnership, refusing to recognize the marriage would view the men as strangers one to the other.

It’s troubling that this case fits into a bigger picture of the federal government’s ambivalence toward same-sex marriage. Last year, Ottawa’s lawyers argued similarly that the marriages of foreign gay men and lesbians performed in Canada were invalid.

In response to media pressure, the government changed its tune. It promised to legislate quickly to secure the status of such marriages. The justice minister introduced a bill nearly a year ago. But it hasn’t received a minute of debate.

That the federal government spent public dollars to oppose the recognition of this relationship is a reminder that “separate but equal” is never truly equal. More than that, it raises questions about this government’s commitment to upholding the substantive equality of gay and lesbian families in Canada, a key part of supporting families.

Professor Robert Leckey is the president of Egale Canada. He teaches family law at McGill University.


The ethics of pizza, prison and punishment

Somewhat to my surprise, I find Public Safety Minister Vic Toews’s adamancy that prisoners should be prohibited from occasionally ordering in pizzas or KFC dinners very disturbing. It brings to mind Ebenezer Scrooge and feels especially mean-spirited at this celebratory time of year. So what insights might we gain by focusing an ethics lens on this situation?

By Margaret Somerville

Globe and Mail (January 04, 2013).

When I studied criminology many years ago, we were taught there were three goals of sentencing: punishment, deterrence and rehabilitation.

The convicted offender is considered to deserve punishment, the major element of which is loss of freedom. Could Mr. Toews view ordering in pizza as the attribution of too much liberty?

Punishment of the offender is also meant to provide the victims and others hurt by the crime with some healing. This is mediated through a person in authority – the sentencing judge – recognizing on behalf of society the wrong done to the victims and imposing punishment. This also elicits the sense for victims and society as a whole that justice is being done. In looking at the wider role of punishment, keep in mind that the criminal justice system replaced individual revenge and was a development toward a more civilized society and, in some respects, a more humane one.

Some victims and others would passionately support Mr. Toews’s anti-pizza stand, but then some of them would also support corporal and capital punishment, which doesn’t justify these interventions. And we should remember that how we treat the most despised people in our society says much more about our ethics than theirs.

Ordering in pizza and enjoying it in a social setting is something many of us do from time to time. It brings to mind warm human contact, laughter, sharing and conversation. Might these associations disturb the “them” and “us” dichotomy used to stigmatize, depersonalize and dehumanize prisoners? Make it less easy for us to believe they’re not us – and we’re not them?

The second goal of imprisonment is deterrence. Specific deterrence is directed at stopping that offender from offending again; general deterrence is aimed at convincing others that crime doesn’t pay.

Even with the occasional pizza, KFC or barbecue chicken, prison is not a resort, so it’s difficult to see how either form of deterrence could be negatively affected by very limited and warden-approved access to these commodities, unless it’s believed that deterrence requires the maximum of deprivation that’s within the bounds of not inflicting cruel or unusual punishment, as prohibited by the Charter of Rights.

Rehabilitation of the offender is the third goal of sentencing – and the one many people believe should take priority when there’s conflict among achieving all of the goals. This choice of priority is not “going soft” on crime; rather, it’s “going hard” on protecting society – precisely the goal of Mr. Toews’s portfolio.

It’s been reported that, sometimes, the pizzas are for family visits, which are allowed in an effort to keep families intact. Creating settings in which prisoners can experience love and joy with their families or companionship with their fellow inmates is more likely than not to assist in their rehabilitation, and it’s very difficult to imagine how this would do harm in this regard.

So, without turning privileges into rights, ethically and humanely, the balance is in favour of bringing in the occasional pizza and KFC meal.

Margaret Somerville is the founding director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University.

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