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The Faculty of Law has always taught both civil law, used in Quebec, and common law, used in the rest of Canada. In 1999, the faculty created a new pedagogical and research model based on comparative law, legal traditions and legal pluralism. Nicholas Kasirer, who became dean in November 2003, points to the potential - and the early payoffs - of the approach.
What does it mean to say that the idea of "legal pluralism" underpins the faculty's new direction?
As a discipline, law is typically connected to political geography, so if you study law in Ontario, the paradigm is Ontario law, and by extension Canadian law. And then it reaches timidly out to international law. But we have found the fullest expression of our mission through the concept of comparative pluralistic law, and, in undergraduate education, in our trans-systemic program. We conceive of law as composed of multiple sites for normativity, of which the local jurisdiction is only one component. And when you free yourself from geography, you move into a world of ideas, thereby challenging the professionalist grip that has often exerted itself on law faculties.
In practical terms, our shift to a trans-systemic approach means that, rather than teaching two legal traditions separately in which students learn all of civil law and common law, we emphasize the interaction between the two traditions in a bilingual setting. Legal pluralism opens the door to interdisciplinarity and provides the basis for studying law in a manner unlike anywhere else in North America, even though many other faculties are realizing that internationalization is transforming ideas of law. The challenge is that we have to create the curriculum out of whole cloth, as we cannot simply pull off the shelf some book that people use in every other law school. But we plan to continue in this direction. For instance, religious and aboriginal legal traditions are also important, and my hope is that over the coming generation, we will consider them more fully in the program.
How are people taking to the idea of legal pluralism and the internationalization of law?
The idea that common and civil law are in a dialogue and that law is a nomadic rather than state-centered phenomenon, makes sense to people, particularly to those living in places where the cosmopolitan character of culture leads them to see the cosmopolitan character of law. We're generating a huge amount of interest in legal education internationally. People have come to visit us from Columbia University, as well as from France, Germany, and Italy. And the law firms are becoming our greatest champions. Demand from across Canada to enter the program has surprised everyone, and graduates are gobbled up by law firms, which bodes very well for our model.
How has this focus translated into research?
We have a very research-intensive faculty. Career law teaching, graduate studies in law, research units, such as the Institute of Comparative Law, the Institute of Air and Space Law and the Centre of Private and Comparative Law, all have a long established place at McGill. We are now creating an interdisciplinary centre for human rights which will stress legal pluralism, as cultural difference affects how rights are imagined. Research through the Centre for Intellectual Property Policy also takes place against this backdrop - for instance, what does it mean to use Anglo-American ideas of intellectual property in settings they weren't designed to speak to?
You noted the cosmopolitan nature of the idea of legal pluralism.
The theme of cosmopolitanism is central, not just for the Faculty of Law, but potentially for all of McGill. Montreal, with its two major languages and multiple cultures, is a kind of laboratory, a model for cultural exchange, where the interactive moment becomes the key intellectual experience. We've tried to focus our energy on taking advantage of this source of difference. It's our strength, so we'd be crazy not to bet the house on it.