History of McGill's Faculty of Law

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.

From humble beginnings in 1848

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 Bâtonnier 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 150 years.

Our distinguished scholars

McGill's Law graduates have served on a number of courts, including eleven 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 University Chancellor 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; 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.

Deans of the Faculty

  • 1853-1855 William Badgley, DCL 1870
  • 1855-1876 Sir John Abbott, BCL 1854, DCL 1867
  • 1876-1881 William Warren Hastings Kerr, BCL 1872 (Acting Dean)
  • 1881-1888 William Warren Hastings Kerr, BCL 1872
  • 1888-1896 Norman W. Trenholme, BCL 1865, DCL 1887
  • 1896-1897 Leonidas Davidson, BCL 1864
  • 1897-1914 Frederick Parker Walton, LLD 1915
  • 1914-1915 Charles P. Davidson, BCL 1863, DCL 1875, LLD 1912 (Acting Dean)
  • 1915-1921 Robert Warden Lee, DCL 1877
  • 1921-1923 Robert A.E. Greenshields, BCL 1885, LLD 1929 (Acting Dean)
  • 1923-1928 Robert A.E. Greenshields, BCL 1885, LLD 1929
  • 1928-1936 Percy Ellwood Corbett, DCL 1961
  • 1936-1946 C. Stuart Lemesurier, BCL 1912
  • 1946 John P. Humphrey, BCL 1929, PhD 1945, LLD 1976 (Dean Designate)
  • 1946-1949 C. Stuart Lemesurier, BCL 1912
  • 1949 Gérald Fauteux, LLD 1955
  • 1950 A. Sydney Bruneau, BCL 1917
  • 1950-1960 William C.J. Meredith
  • 1960-1961 Maxwell Cohen, LLD 1994 (Acting Dean)
  • 1961-1964 Francis R. Scott, BCL 1927, LLD 1967
  • 1964-1969 Maxwell Cohen, LLD 1994
  • 1969-1974 John W. Durnford, BCL 1952
  • 1974-1979 John E.C. Brierley, BCL 1959
  • 1979-1980 William Foster (Acting Dean)
  • 1980-1984 John E.C. Brierley, BCL 1959
  • 1984-1989 Roderick A. Macdonald
  • 1989-1994 The Hon. Yves-Marie Morissette
  • 1994-1999 Stephen Toope, BCL 1983, LBB 1983, LLD 2017
  • 1999-2003 Peter Leuprecht
  • 2003-2009 The Hon. Nicolas Kasirer, BCL 1985, LLB 1985
  • 2009 Shauna Van Praagh (Acting Dean)
  • 2009-2010 Daniel Jutras (Acting Dean)
  • 2010-2016 Daniel Jutras
  • 2016- Robert Leckey, BCL 2002, LLB 2002

For more on the history of the oldest Faculty of Law in Canada, read Ian Pilarczyk's A Noble Roster: One Hundred And Fifty Years Of Law At McGill (2009).