First, many thanks to Simon F. and the rest of the Slaw team for asking me to join. I’ve been an enthusiastic reader and occasional commenter on Slaw for the last couple of years, and I am looking forward to the opportunity to contribute more regularly to our exchanges of ideas.
As a topic for discussion, I’d like to propose the following hypothetical scenario. Let’s suppose that tomorrow you are presented with a legal problem requiring a bit of digging. You go to the library, and find, much to your surprise, that every fourth book is filled with empty pages. You turn to the printed reporters, or QuickLaw and eCarswell, and similarly find every fourth case or so missing. Even when reading federal and (some) provincial legislation, half the words are blank.
Of course, this scenario is not really that hypothetical at all. It’s the experience of unilingual anglophone lawyers faced with Canadian legal writing, cases, and legislation in French.
My question is this: should we be willing to accept that most anglophone lawyers lack minimum competency in both languages? Can we fulfill our responsibility to advise on the law if we can’t understand what much of it says? Why isn’t having a basic reading knowledge of French considered part of an English legal education?
Many lawyers might argue that an inability to speak French is largely a theoretical lacuna in their skill set, having little or no effect on their day to day practices. Moreover, the growth of national firms means that English-only lawyers who are more likely to be working on files where understanding French is critical will also more likely have access to French speaking colleagues.
Even if often the language gap has limited effect, or can be easily bridged, I nonetheless ask why the gap need exist in the first place. My own prejudices on this subject have been formed by my having obtained my law degree and begun practising in Montreal. In six years there, I don’t think I met a single lawyer who was not bilingual at least to some degree.
Should we expect more from English speaking lawyers in the rest of Canada? Not perfect bilingualism, not even necessarily the ability to serve clients in French, but just the simple ability to read a case, book, or article in French and understand what it says? Having not learned French until I was in law school, I don’t think it’s much to ask, but I would be interested in hearing other views.