Disclaimer: I am required to teach legal citation to keen 1Ls that are learning about snails in bottles, individuals masturbating in windows, cannibalism at sea, and cricket games. I am never surprised that they do not find legal citation particularly exciting. However, unexciting does not mean unimportant. I understand and value proper citation and appreciate the efforts that McGill Law students and faculty have put into the Canadian Guide to Uniform Legal Citation since 1986. Please note that my comments address only the English content.
Slaw is no stranger to posts about the Canadian Guide to Uniform Legal Citation (the “McGill Guide”). A quick search for “McGill Guide” returns 49 results, the first being published in slaw’s inaugural publishing year of 2005. Many of these posts are polite complaints from legal professionals who understand the value of citation but take issue with the minutiae of the McGill Guide. These issues include minor changes between each edition, examples that often leave more questions than answers, and the fact that, despite its title, it has never been uniformly implemented across Canada. This post is no different.
Informal announcements have already reached the ears and inboxes of law librarians across Canada that the 10th edition of the McGill Guide will be published in 2022. In 2012 Louis Mirando, former Chief Law Librarian at Osgoode Hall School of Law, called on legal professionals and the editors of the McGill Guide to “reconsider both the ends and the means of legal citation as currently practised.” In 2014, upon publication of the 8th edition, he called to move “beyond the McGill Guide.” I would like to return to Mirando’s pleas as they are all still valid today.
Although I have many opinions on the McGill Guide, I have tried very hard to focus my comments. I have included two categories of improvement for the editors to consider: flexibility and accessibility.
Be more flexible.
The self-stated purpose of the Guide is:
Establishing a uniform system of legal citation allows for the efficient and reliable recognition of legal sources, an important requirement for the advancement of legal scholarship.
Does the McGill Guide help advance legal scholarship through efficient and reliable recognition of legal sources? Legal scholarship has advanced, and these advancements include interdisciplinary subject matter, multidisciplinary authors, and new types of scholarly works. Throughout my time in academia, I have transitioned from MLA to APA to McGill. I’ve always felt that alternate citation styles can alienate newcomers and readers from a discipline, this includes the McGill Guide.
In the foreword, the faculty advisor for the 9th edition says:
I am happy to have borne witness to the Guide’s evolution from a rigid formalism to a clearer style and structure that increases access to legal knowledge, while consistently holding firm on fuzzy citation.
I appreciate this quotation, but I’m not sure I believe it. There are rules for practically every type of legal document and an inane number of abbreviations (true in many disciplines and professions, but that doesn’t mean we should accept it). Increasing rules and content does not necessarily result in clear style and structure.
I do, however, love the term “fuzzy citation.” I interpret “fuzzy” to mean flexible. A good fuzzy legal citation guide is the Oxford University Standard for the Citation of Legal Authorities (OSCOLA). OSCOLA is not perfect but the main message is that a set of general principles and consistency are the gold standard for citation. This suggests that understanding the necessary elements of a citation is more valuable than following a rigid set of rules. Perhaps users of the McGill Guide want more fuzz? Also, OSCOLA still manages to be effective, despite having not been revised since 2012.
Although the ability to properly cite a Reddit thread may have seemed groundbreaking in 2014, I suggest that the McGill Guide should not try to keep up with the internet. Go backwards. Reduce online secondary sources to a single format. I am confident that legal professionals and law students (and anyone else) will be able to differentiate between a Reddit thread and an information page about aquaculture collaboration from Fisheries and Oceans Canada. Emphasize that knowing the who, what, when, and where of a source will allow readers to recognize and locate the source efficiently and effectively.
Be more accessible.
From the Word from the Editor in the 9th edition:
The two main objectives that have guided us in the preparation of this ninth edition are conciseness and accessibility.
Accessibility is mentioned several times throughout the Word from the Editor, but when they are referring to updates to the McGill Guide I interpret their meaning to be usability. The type of accessibility I’m referring to is open access. Who can actually get their hands on a copy of the McGill Guide? Why is a guide that is self-titled to be a nation-wide uniform system of legal citation stuck behind a paywall? Another great thing about OSCOLA is that it is an open-access resource. There are no subscription fees or terms. No negotiating. No third-party publisher.
Again, from the 9th edition’s third foreword:
The ever-evolving form and content of legal sources and, of course, legal writing’s extensive reliance on intertextuality, is the raison d’être of this volume. [emphasis added]
If the form and content of legal sources are ever evolving, the form and content of the McGill Guide should evolve, too. Let students purchase a PDF copy. Perhaps go a step further and break ties with your corporate publisher and publish an open access citation guide. I would argue that this is helps address an access to justice issue. The cost is currently prohibitive for self-represented litigants. Courts have had to publish their own accessible citation resources to fill this access to justice gap.
I also know that law students paying exorbitant tuition and fees occasionally choose not to purchase a copy. I understand their choice, but also note that it shifts the cost to law libraries. Law libraries pay for print copies and, if their budget allows, electronic access to ensure students can learn a skill that is, in my opinion, a competency requirement mandated by the Federation of Law Societies (see 1.2 Legal Research and 1.3 Oral and Written Legal Communication). If the McGill Guide wants to be the uniform system of legal citation, it should try to be more accessible to its target demographic.
The McGill Law Journal publishes open issues on their website. The journal allows for publication of preprints and, after 8 months, publication of the version of record. The journal also shares content with CanLII. It seems as if the editorial board of the McGill Law Journal recognizes the importance of open access, so why does the McGill Guide play by different rules?
My final point on accessibility is blunt: show me the money. The current price of a print copy is $79.00. The current price for the electronic version is, “call your print sales representative for multi-user pricing.” Rumour has it that those sales representatives actively discourage discussions on pricing between customers. How are the profits of the McGill Guide distributed? If there is a concern about profit margins, perhaps creating a citation guide that does not need to be updated every four years would help reduce costs.
My final (joke of a) comment is this: if you have to ask if users are feeling overwhelmed with the McGill Guide, it might be time to simplify. Citation might not always be easy, but it should never be overwhelming.
To any of the student or faculty editors that might be reading this: I am sure you are currently discussing many of the ideas presented in my rambles. I know you have acknowledged the debates around the term “uniform” in 9th edition’s word from the editor. Your efforts have not gone unnoticed – you’ve already considered inclusivity and initiated projects addressing Indigenous Citation and Islamic Citation, asked how to cite NFTs, and started a blog to address issues with the current edition. You (briefly) provided law students with access to the electronic version early in the pandemic. I am also incredibly grateful that the McGill Guide has not gone the way of its unnecessarily complex American cousin, the Bluebook. You are doing important work and I acknowledge that a citation guide will never please everyone.
Finally, I don’t think that my sole opinion should be the guiding force for the direction of the McGill Guide. I do think the guide can be better and, as has been done in the past, open consultation with its users would be helpful. It has been pointed out in the third foreword of the 9th edition that, “Debates on the form, content, and access of citation guides appear nowhere close to settled.” So, legal professionals, shall we debate? What direction would you like to see the McGill Guide take? Are there any specific rules you’d like to see updated, added, or removed? Please share in the comments.