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University of Ottawa’s common law team wins Jessup moot court competition

Wednesday, February 28, 2018 @ 3:44 PM | By Carolyn Gruske


In a battle about foreign submarines trespassing through national waters, the University of Ottawa’s common law team reigned supreme.

The Canadian round of the 59th edition of the Philip C. Jessup International Law Moot Court Competition was held at the University of New Brunswick from Feb. 22 to 24. In total, 14 teams of competitors from law schools throughout the country competed with the hopes of progressing on to the international round, which is scheduled to be held in Washington, D.C., in April.

The University of Ottawa, common law, emerged as national champions, earning a trip to Washington. The team found its way into the final after facing an opponent from very close to home: the team from the University of Ottawa’s civil law program.

The University of Toronto team was the other finalist, and also earned a spot in the U.S. based competition. It defeated Dalhousie University to earn its berth in the final.

The other participating schools were the University of British Columbia, Thompson Rivers University (which competed for the first time), the University of Alberta, the University of Calgary, the University of Saskatchewan, Western University, the University of Toronto, Osgoode Hall Law School, Queen’s University, McGill University and the University of New Brunswick.  

The competition also recognizes the top oralists, and this year Daniel Sisgoreo from the University of Toronto earned first place in that category. Second place went to Mitchell Brown from Dalhousie and Katrina LeBun, also from Dalhousie, took third.

Judging also took place of the written submissions. UBC earned top marks, followed by the University of Ottawa’s civil law team and Dalhousie.

The case the students tried was about the “navigation of passage rights under international law, and it involved allegations about submarines that were unlawfully trespassing on other countries’s territories,” said Jessup moot court board member and national administrator David Quayat.

“There was also an issue dealing with nuclear disarmament because one of the submarines happened to be a nuclear submarine. That also created issues of disarmament obligations and nuclear weapons.”

He explained that the problems the students face have their origins in the real world.

“Last year’s was a variation on the Crimea problem in Russia. But we put fictitious names on everything. … So I think the inspiration this year was issues in the South China Sea and different countries claiming different navigation rights and also the fact there are some suggestions China is putting some nuclear-armed vessels in the South China Sea and what do you do with all that? I think that was in the author’s mind when the problem was being developed, but if you were to read the problem, you wouldn’t see the word China anywhere because we don’t do it that way. It’s fictitious countries that deal with issues that are pressing and modern. We’ve done things like terrorism and environmental law, all typically inspired by real-world scenarios or real-world issues of the day.”

According to Quayat, Canadians have fared well in the international competition, even if they haven’t recently won.

“Canadian teams historically do well in that we make the playoffs. It’s been a number of years, I think it’s over 20 years, that a Canadian team made it to the finals. We do well in the preliminary matches. It’s just that the competition gets a bit tough in the playoffs. We’re like the Leafs, we’re in a bit of a drought.”

He speculated that there are a number of reasons for this. One is that in some countries, including the U.S., Russia and Australia, more time is spent preparing the students specifically for this competition.

“Part of it is they devote more people power to doing it. They give things like course credit. They have these incentive structures that maybe reward the students spending even more time than we might.”

He suspects another reason might be the legal tradition that is practised in Canada.

“When they compete in front of the judges that serve in Canada, the judges are real judges, for example, one of the finals was judged by Justice Malcolm Rowe from the Supreme Court. We’ve had Justice Marc Richard from the New Brunswick Court of Appeal, and Justice David Farrar from the Nova Scotia Court of Appeal was there, but at the international rounds, the judging pool is hugely diverse and comes from countries with both common law and civil law traditions. You have South American judges, African judges and Asian judges.

“We sometimes have the hubris of thinking our common law style of being in court and advocacy are the best ways, and that’s just the consequence of how we’re trained here. When you go to Washington, the judges there are of a different legal tradition, and so I think the key to success is tailoring your argument and tailoring your approach in court to one that is mindful of both [traditions] because there are still judges — or lawyers acting as judges — from the U.S. and Canada and the U.K. and Australia.”

Looking back at the New Brunswick event, Quayat is happy with the results.

“I think it went really well. Everybody seemed to have had a terrific time and the students seemed to have gotten a lot out of the experience. The coaches who I spoke with seemed to have some very positive reaction. I think overall it was a successful weekend in Fredericton.”