One of the skills that legal researchers and authors quickly have to master does not have anything to do with substantive law, but with how to refer to legal materials. This is true in many other areas of specialized knowledge, but citation standards in the legal realm seem to be particularly cluttered with minute details and exceptions, especially in Canada and the United States. Some of us eventually become quite skilled at knowing how to use square brackets, abbreviations and acronyms of legal authorities. The rest of us rely on proofreaders to make sure that every rule in the book has been complied with.
Last Summer, the 7th edition of the Canadian Guide to Uniform Legal Citation (the “McGill Guide”) introduced this “General Rule” at p. E-3:
“In citations, omit periods when using an abbreviation or acronym, unless the Guide explains otherwise.”
The change entailed by this low key sentence has a very significant impact. Indeed, each and every example in the Guide is now free of the useless periods we have come to get used to. What a nice and overdue clean-up!
For those of us who developed the Neutral Citation Standard for Case Law, this orientation change of the McGill Guide felt like a modernization of the legal citation apparatus in Canada. It meant that from now on, the legal style would be aligned with the rest of our world, in which useless periods are not to be seen in acronyms anymore. Who types N.A.T.O., C.B.C. or N.H.L. when referring to these organizations? Nobody has the time to enforce a standard that is not useful. However, in the legal world we still type D.L.R., S.C.R., R.S.O., etc.
Major legal citation guides in the UK (OSCOLA, s. 1.3.1) and Australia (AGLC, s. 1.6.1) clearly forbid the use of “full stops” in abbreviations and initials found in citations. If you look in a law textbook published in these two countries you will not encounter many periods in citations, even when the topic is Canadian corporate law.
Here in Canada, serious people can seriously teach legal research without embellishing everything with useless periods. If you pay a visit to the Research Manual prepared by the staff of the Queen’s University Lederman Law Library, you will see for yourself that law students there learn to cite legal materials without periods. Do you think that these students at Queen’s will be disadvantaged for being entirely clueless about how people were using punctuation in the last century?
The undersigned called for this change many years ago, along with others, including here on Slaw. When the new edition of the McGill Guide was released, there were some discussion about the omission of periods, but now we fear that there could be a sense that the legal community is not ready yet.
Those of us who are ready for the jump – or more exactly who have been waiting for years for this particular jump – must seize every opportunity to speak out and clearly endorse a long overdue change on the path to the improvement of legal citation style in Canada.
These days, in committee rooms, the people responsible for the preparation of this year’s law reports are thinking about what to do. For them, the choice is not clear yet. On the one hand, they can stick to tradition; nobody was ever fired for that. Tradition is good. On the other hand, they can modernize their citation style, but they are not even sure how this more risky tack will be received by their users and readers. This is why we are using this column as a podium to ask you to stand up and to encourage those decision-makers of the publishing industry to dare change timeless but useless practices.
We have an opportunity here. If we miss it, in five years’ time, lawyers and law librarians will tell each other that dropping the periods is impossible in Canada. They will say that this has been tried, but it has not worked, for the legal community loves periods. Everybody will continue to waste their time.
By Daniel Poulin and Frédéric Pelletier, Lexum