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Manitoba law school hopes certificate in French will mean more bilingual lawyers

Thursday, July 18, 2019 @ 1:36 PM | By Terry Davidson


Manitoba’s law school is looking to improve access to justice for the province’s French population by producing more bilingual lawyers with a common law certificate in that language, says a legal mind behind the project.

The University of Manitoba’s Robson Hall is in the midst of developing its French certificate program, which, with the help of $768,372 in funding from Justice Canada, will focus on producing more bilingual lawyers in a province that, like many others, is lacking adequate legal services in French.

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Gerald Heckman, University of Manitoba

Robson Hall law professor Gerald Heckman said he expects the first enrolments this fall. Many of these students, he said, will be among the growing number that attended French immersion high schools.

“I would say that there is a difference between a lawyer who can speak both English and French and a lawyer who can practise law in both English and French,” said Heckman, who is codirecting the Bilingual Program Project with professor Lorna Turnbull. “A lawyer practising criminal law, for example, has to master the French-language terminology governing both the procedural and substantive aspects of criminal law, has to be able to explain these concepts in plain language to her francophone client and employ them in legal argument in court.”

When asked what kind of shortage Manitoba is experiencing, Heckman said he has “heard that only two or … three criminal defence lawyers in Winnipeg regularly represent francophone clients in French in criminal cases.”

“[The new common law certificate] is there to address, primarily, an access to justice challenge that has been identified. It is very difficult, in many cases, for members of French speaking communities outside Quebec to obtain legal services in their own language.”

In June, Saskatchewan’s College of Law certified its first cohort in common law French through a joint program where the students spend a portion of their schooling at the University of Ottawa.

But Heckman said Robson Hall saw a demand for a stay-at-home French program offering the teaching of practical skills, such as legal research, oral and written advocacy and legal terminology.

Traditionally, he said, Manitoba students wanting training to practise law in French went to the University of Ottawa or University of Moncton, both of which offer full, three-year juris doctor degrees in that language.  

“But what sometimes happens is that students will go off … but they won’t come back. The problem is we need to make sure we have sufficient numbers of students who remain in Manitoba or in western provinces to offer their services, in French, to the French language community.”

In 2012, Ontario’s Ministry of the Attorney General released a report “raising questions” about a shortage of bilingual lawyers in that province.

According to the report, only around 5,400 of 41,000 Law Society of Ontario members had self-identified as being able to offer services in French. They were involved in various areas of public and private practice and were “located in different geographic areas.”

“Statistics compiled at the Court of Appeal for Ontario over a nine-year period revealed that only 0.33 per cent of criminal appeals argued by a lawyer proceeded in French, or bilingually,” it states. “With the French-speaking population representing about five per cent of the population of Ontario, this figure raises significant questions about whether or not French speakers are able to exercise their language rights.”

Heckman knows law school is already tough and acknowledged students entering the French certificate program will face a steep learning curve.

“What we’ve done is we’ve offered the bilingual courses in classes like legal methods or legal research and writing. What that means is they are learning valuable skills — pleadings or legal citation, research methods, those kinds of things — they are learning those skills in French and what they are learning is fully portable to the practice of law in English.”

In many cases, he said, students will graduate from French immersion but go on to study English-based courses for their undergraduate university degrees.

As a result, the French gets rusty.

For this, he said, Robson Hall is partnering with the Université de Saint-Boniface to provide language proficiency tests, online practice tools and tutoring.

Heckman said the francophone judges and lawyers consulted about the certificate program had a clear message.

“What we would like to see, they said, is students graduating from that program being able to come before us and to argue cases in French, particularly in areas where the access to justice needs are quite high, and those include criminal law, family law and children’s law.”

As part of a June 5 statement announcing the federal funding for Robson Hall, Minister of Justice and Attorney General David Lametti called the certificate program a step towards better access to justice.

“Our government is actively working to improve access to justice in both official languages across the county,” said Lametti in a news release. “By increasing the capacity of institutions like Robson Hall to offer legal training in French, it ensures that more graduates in Manitoba will be able to provide legal services in their clients’ official language of choice.”