Henry Higgins, in My Fair Lady, famously sang, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” For Higgins, an elocution teacher who traded in British class prejudice by offering to improve clients’ social standing through posh talk, the education of a woman was essentially a troublesome Alternative Business Structure (ABS) – he could work with the moving parts but the brain remained a mystery.
The Final Report of the Canadian Bar Association’s Legal Futures Initiative, released today, appears to be a multifaceted atlas mapping out a strategy for renewal of Canada’s law industry. There are many good thoughts in it, including a premise that “The future for lawyers is as much about ethics and values as it is about economics and value.” That equation is somewhat betrayed by the simple textual metric that the word “value” in the sense of economic value is used more than twice as often than in the sense of ethical values. Review of the report from beginning to end bears out this imbalance. In reality, there is no shortage of Darwinian zeal when it comes to the core message: Change or Die.
Il n’y a, en général, que les conceptions simples qui s’emparent de l’esprit du peuple. Une idée fausse, mais claire et précise, aura toujours plus de puissance dans le monde qu’une idée vraie, mais complexe.
~ Alexis de Tocqueville, De la démocratie en Amérique
De Tocqueville was likely not the first to say it, but his observation that democracies love simplicity came with the warning that people will embrace a clear and precise lie sooner than a complex truth. Add the frenzy of insurrection to the power of the people, and we can, through his eyes, see the contrast between the French and American republics at the end of the 18th century. One can argue the relative complexity of the American constitutional documents, intended to buffer the excesses of direct democracy, has acted as a restraint against mob rule.
The power of simplicity has long been a challenge for jurists in a democracy. Statutes and common-law principles tend to be blunt instruments, especially in a pluralistic society. The task of deciding whether those blunt instruments apply to a particular set of facts falls on the judiciary. Beyond the Ten Commandments, codes of civil and penal laws necessarily involve that critical extra step for implementation. For example, every criminal offence and every civil duty of care that does not impose absolute or strict liability contains both an active and a mental element. Instead of explaining the method by which the law operates, judges and lawyers often fall into the pastime of grafting a second layer of law about which there is little certainty. Breaking down the written words of the law into precise and constituent elements is a judicial task; building a superstructure above the text is not. The key to the constitutional principle of “peace, order and good government,” not unique to Canada, is a judiciary which understands its role as facilitator of civic governance. Turn the Constitution into an alphabet soup of subjective and unpredictable combinations, and our courts will be working against its proper function.
A Problem of Legal Training
Lawyers and judges are trained to build constructs out of legislative and common-law principles, based on a theory that there are both written and unwritten laws. In doing so, we mistake the underlying or interpretive logic of statutory instruments and common law precedents for a separate set of rules. Even the common law is a body of rules that exists only in the written texts of judicial precedents, so expansion of law instead of carving down its bluntness can be viewed as treading on elected power. We often misconstrue our duty and try to ‘build upon’ the law, instead of interpreting the law as it applies to the parties’ situation. It is time to think hard about what are doing, and whether what we are teaching is right. We have to decide whether we are jurists or social scientists. The further we stray from being jurists, the utility and legitimacy of our professional expertise wears thinner.
The “blawgosphere” seems to have lit up this week with the release of Morland-Jones v. Taerk, a dispute between neighbours in the affluent Toronto, Canada, neighbourhood of Forest Hill. Essentially, the Ontario Superior Court ruled that the case, an interlocutory injunction matter involving multiple allegations of trespass and invasion of privacy, should be dismissed because “there is no serious issue.”
We may derive some guilty pleasure from reading about the dispute – evidently between a pair of awful neighbours with no shortage of money to spend on lawyers – but was it right for the judge simply to turn them away? If it were a matrimonial dispute between two annoying spouses from a rich family, would the court be justified in refusing a request by one party for interim relief on this basis? Would the judge have ruled this way, if the same complaints were made by neighbours from a less expensive postal code? My entry on the Gilbertson Davis LLP litigation blog (click link, or click on image above right) canvasses these issues concerning the role of the court in a society where we all depend on the rule of law to get along.
A report in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix that the University of Saskatchewan plans to eliminate its law library and integrate the collection with three other campus libraries into the main university library prompted protest from many in the legal academy. One of the requirements set by the Federation of Law Societies of Canada (FLSC) is that a law school maintain a law library (2009 FLSC report pp. 5, 11 and 42).
The argument that many students and practitioners now gain access to legal resources online ignores the importance of the tangible written word on the rule of law. A row of books, even ones that are “out of date,” serve to remind the public, as well as judges and lawyers, that even the common law is engraved in modern versions of stone tablets for all to view, not suspended in an oral tradition guarded by a few oracles.
Marbury v. Madison is the considered the seminal decision in judicial review of executive and legislative action. At least, that is what the U.S. courts have subsequently repeated. In fact, the 1803 decision of a fledgling American high court represented a Mexican standoff between executive and judicial power in which the limits of the U.S. Supreme Court were sharply defined. Was Marbury a boundary wall it built to assert its jurisdiction, or one behind which it retreated?
One criticism that can be leveled against the Marbury court was that it institutionalized a mechanical, semi-democratic vision of judicial action. American governments now operate within a constitution which can enable laws forcing Americans to register for health care but cannot allow the government to require them to register assault weapons. The Supreme Court of the United States effectively claimed title to the country’s basic law instead of recognizing it as a social contract between the state and its citizens – instead of interpreting it as a working document for all three branches of government. As a result, the concentration of constitutional power in the hands of the judiciary meant the legal history of a powerful nation was determined more by litigation over the intent of revolutionary “Founding Fathers” than by democratic process.
In the current row between Canada’s Prime Minister and the Supreme Court Chief Justice, no one has drawn the comparison with the landmark 1803 decision. It is about time someone did. There are some superficial similarities in subject matter. William Marbury found himself in the middle of an argument over the technicalities of a judicial appointment by an outgoing president. In the end, the court ruled against the completion of the appointment. Those wanting a reminder of the details of Marbury can read the excellent synopsis in Wikipedia.
If we suspend for a moment the lawyer’s proclivity to look for analogies or to pick at differences in specific legal issues, we can see in Marbury a case study of a relatively organic formation of the division of powers in the United States in the 19th-century. The case study allows us to see the plot structure of the current Canadian drama between the government and the Supreme Court with the aid of X-ray vision.