A Modest Proposal – the McGill Guide

The Canadian Guide to Uniform Legal Citation was created by the editors of the McGill Law Journal and published by Carswell Thomson. The Guide is unique in that it is truly national in scope. It covers both civil law and common law and is published in English and in French. It has been adopted as the official standard for citation by both French language and English language law reviews and by a number of courts. These are significant accomplishments.

However, unlike the inclusive nature of the content, the Guide takes a restrictive approach to access. Originally published in 1986 and now in its sixth edition, the Guide continues to be available only in print and for a price. This is in stark contrast to the open access policy that the McGill Law Journal recently announced with respect to all of the back issues of the Journal which are now being made available online in pdf format, free of charge, to anyone who accesses the Journal’s website.

“The potential to be more that just a style guide”

Inspired by the Bluebook published by the Harvard Law Review Association, the Guide is intended be the definitive style guide for legal citation in Canada. Like the Bluebook, it has the potential to be more than just a style guide.

The Bluebook’s website summarizes the special role played by the Bluebook in the practice of law in the United States since it was first published in 1926:

“For generations, law students, lawyers, scholars, judges, and other legal professionals have relied on the Bluebook’s unique system of citation in their writing. The Bluebook continues to provide a systematic method by which members of the legal profession communicate important information to one another about the sources and legal authorities upon which they rely in their work.”

Like the Bluebook, the McGill Guide has the potential to provide the “systematic method by which members of the legal profession communicate” to one another in Canada. What is needed to achieve this result? One key element is easy access which could be provided if the McGill Guide was made available to judges, lawyers and law students on all of the online services in the country including CANLII, SOQUIJ, and every commercial legal publisher.

Universal access to a standard style guide

Anyone who has spent any time at all reading unedited Canadian judgments has seen the many problems created by incomplete and sometimes inaccurate references to the sources of law, whether it be sections of statutes, case citations, or extracts from legal treatises. Many “errors” in case and statute citators originate with unclear references in the judgment itself. Only a handful of courts edit their judgments to address deficiencies in citations before issuing them to the public.

The primary purpose of a legal citation or reference is to enable the reader to easily locate a cited source. For that to happen, the authors of reasons for judgment need to take a systematic approach in referring to legal sources. The same is obviously true for lawyers preparing documents for submission to courts and for legal scholars writing legal treatises.

The widespread use of a single style guide will help to ensure that legal citations and references are complete and useful. By making the McGill Guide available virtually everywhere, the likelihood is greater that it will be used by an increasing number of members of the legal profession, especially if its use is reinforced in training programs for judges and lawyers.

Where do things stand?

For some unexplained reason, the McGill Guide has not yet been made available online. It is such an obvious candidate. The copyright in the Canadian Guide to Legal Citation is held by the Trustees of the McGill Law Journal. Carswell Thomson has the print publication rights. Given the expressed demand for online access, it is likely that an electronic version of the Guide is being planned by either McGill and/or Carswell but not yet announced.

In the event that online access is near, one would hope that the Trustees of the McGill Law Journal and/or the legal publisher would take the same approach that Carswell did when it developed the Index to Canadian Legal Literature in association with the Canadian Association of Law Libraries. In that instance, Carswell offered to make the content of the Index readily available to its online competitors.

If in fact there are no plans yet for an online version of the McGill Guide, the McGill Law Journal itself should offer open access to the content to anyone and everyone interested in making the Guide available online. Legal researchers and legal publishers would welcome such a move.

An online alternative to the McGill Guide

It has been suggested that a new online Guide be created as an alternative to the McGill Guide. I would suggest that such an initiative is both undesireable and premature. The McGill Guide has been developed to meet uniquely Canadian needs and has been successful in doing so. An alternative Guide would result in more than one standard, creating uncertainty and confusion instead of order. Furthermore, the process of developing a work of comparable quality and standards would be a waste of creative energy better spent on other endeavours.

Providing open access to the McGill Guide is inevitable because it is in the public interest. Until that happens, the decision makers at McGill need to be encouraged to apply the same principle of open access to the Canadian Guide to Uniform Legal Citation that it now does with the McGill Law Journal itself.


  1. The McGill law journal earns significant revenue from the McGill Guide. It is unclear how your proposal addresses this practical issue.

  2. It’s not just that the McGill law journal earns significant revenue from the McGill Guide. It’s likely, speaking from my experience with another journal, that the McGill Guide is he McGill Law Journal’s PRIMARY source of revenue. Canadian legal journal subscriptions and royalties often don’t bring in enough revenue to cover costs, so they require alternate sources of funding — grants, the McGill Guide, tables of statutory limitations, etc.

    A move to online-only content may perhaps eventually be inevitable (I am less convinced about the inevitability of a move to open access [i.e., free] online content), but online access to legal journals through sources like Quicklaw or HeinOnline currently brings in negligible income. I have yet to see a proposal along these lines that addresses the funding problems that it would necessarily create.

    Law Reviews are non-profit societies staffed by hard-working volunteers, but printing costs or no, they do have office expenses which must be paid. It’s “in the public interest” to have free, open access to pretty much any legal information, but if making that information freely accessible makes it impossible for the information to continue to be published, the public interest is not being served at all.

  3. Seems to me that CanLII itself is an excellent model of what can be accomplished if the legal profession deems it important to have access to materials. Perhaps the bar associations should underwrite the publication of the Guide?

  4. As a former law student and proud owner of the 18th edition of the Bluebook, I would surmise that the McGill Law Journal’s revenues will not be affected greatly by co-publication of the Guide online.

    I would imagine that the chief purchasers of the Guide are law students. Every law student at my law school bought the Bluebook as a required text for their first-year writing class. So long as professors recommend textbooks, students will buy them.

    This being said, having the guide available online will help people like me, who want to quickly check the appropriate canadian citation format. I was directed to this blog post by a google search for “McGill Guide” … the McGill Law Journal would do well to harness that traffic, and perhaps will be able to convert online visitors from other countries into purchasers of a print copy.