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History of the McGill Faculty of Law

From humble beginnings in 1848

A lion with shield guards a Law building

Although informal law lectures were being held at McGill College as early as 1829, the oldest law faculty in Canada wasn't officially created until 1848, as a response to a petition from 23 young men who had been studying independently for the Quebec Bar, and wanted their work rewarded with a formal legal degree.

By the time  of Confederation 19 years later, there were 110 McGill law graduates working across the country, including two future Prime Ministers - Sir John Joseph Caldwell Abbott and Sir Wilfrid Laurier - and Father of Confederation Thomas d'Arcy McGee, who would later bear the distinction of being the only Canadian political figure ever assassinated while in office.

In 1853, the Faculty grew to include two Professors and two Lecturers under the stewardship of Dean Charles Dewey Day, who was at the same time batonnier of the Quebec bar. But it wasn't until Sir William MacDonald endowed the Faculty with 200 thousand dollars in 1890 that it was able to undertake the long-range planning and hiring of Professors needed to develop the first-rate institution it would become in the 20th century.

From these modest beginnings, McGill's Faculty of Law has become world-renowned for its overall excellence in teaching and research, primarily through its emphasis on comparative law. Uniquely positioned to reflect upon the West's two founding legal traditions, the Anglo-American common law, and continental Europe's civil law, McGill has occupied a position of leadership in the legal community for more than 100 years.

150 years of distinguished scholars

Over the past 150 years, McGill's faculty of law graduates have served on a number of courts, including eight at the Supreme Court of Canada level, held political office right up to Prime Minister, and assumed leading positions in academia and business. It is this breadth, as well as depth, of interest and ability that helps distinguish McGill from other law schools in Canada. McGill Law professors have always played a key role in the development of the law, both nationally and internationally, and have been front and center in the fight for human rights as well.

This tradition was born with first Dean Charles Dewey Day, who was one of three Commissioners responsible for drafting the 1866 Civil Code of Lower Canada, which remained the primary expression of Quebec law until the early 1990s.

When the time came to revise the Code in the 1960s and 70s, another McGill Law professor, Paul-André Crépeau, became the president and animating spirit of the Civil Code Revision Office. In the century between Day and Crépeau, a number of distinguished civilian scholars - Lafleur, Walton, Marler, Wainwright, Baudouin and Migneault among them - were associated with the Faculty.

In 1946, esteemed Professor Maxwell Cohen joined the Faculty. Under his leadership, the Institute of Air and Space Law was founded in 1951, followed 15 years later by the Institute of Comparative Law in 1966. These two Institutes have played an integral role in expanding McGill's graduate legal studies profile. As Emeritus Professor, Cohen then served as judge ad hoc on the International Court of Justice before retiring.

Cohen was also the man behind the National Programme, inaugurating it with the incoming class in 1968. The newly revamped Programme remains the only one of its kind in the world, allowing undergraduates to develop an appreciation for both civil and common law traditions while working in a bilingual environment.

Other prominent Faculty members have included constitutional specialist, poet, and civil libertarian F.R. Scott, who argued the landmark Roncarelli case before the Supreme Court of Canada in 1959, and later sat on the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism; John Peters Humphrey, the founding Director of the United Nations Human Rights division and author of the first draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948; Roderick Macdonald, the founding President of the Law Reform Commission of Canada; Dr. Margaret Somerville, founding Director of McGill's Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law, and an internationally renowned bio-ethicist; Peter Leuprecht, the United Nations Special Representative on Human Rights in Cambodia.

Building a future on a strong tradition

For more than 150 years, McGill's Faculty of Law has been developing legal minds equally at ease with the intellectual rigors of academia and the practical realities of the legal profession. This tradition of excellence is a source of pride for McGill Law graduates, and we look forward to expanding upon this historic base throughout our third century of teaching.

For more information about the history of the oldest Faculty of Law in Canada, you can read Ian Pilarczyk's A Noble Roster: One Hundred And Fifty Years Of Law At McGill.

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