A Legal Publisher and the McGill Guide

Early in my career, when I was a freshly hatched legal editor, I pored over the Canadian Guide to Uniform Legal Citation (the McGill Guide). It answered many of my questions about the finer points of legal citation: the meaning of square or round brackets; which words should be italicized; the correct order of parallel cites; and so on. I’m pretty sure I was using the first or second edition (we’re talking about 1988 and 1989). The Guide was tremendously helpful to me; although the rules were somewhat complex, they were clearly spelled out and easy to follow. On reflection, I may have been a bit over-enthusiastic in adopting the Guide; at that time, it prescribed the convention of using italics for the name of the parties in a case citation, but not using italics for the v. I’m not sure why I adopted this convention.

For the most part, the McGill Guide has been our go-to guide to answer citation questions here at CLEBC. Our in-house style guide prescribes the use of McGill (and then sets out a long list of exceptions).

But when I was chatting with our copy editor about Louis Mirando’s excellent critique of the recent history of the Guide, she told me that she hadn’t looked at it for over a year. That’s partly a reflection of her considerable memory and experience, but it also aligns with Mirando’s comments about the limitations of the recent editions.

The latest version of the Guide we have here at CLEBC is the fifth edition, published in 2002. Our copy is well-thumbed, flagged, and highlighted, but we haven’t purchased any editions since then. (The most recent edition is number eight, published this fall.)

I parted company with the Guide around the time of the controversy over the omission of periods within abbreviations (the Great Citation Kerfuffle of 2010). The decision not to follow the seventh edition was easy for us: we had adopted the previous style (abbreviations with periods) and had been using it for the thousands and thousands of case citations in our publications. How much work would be involved to change and proof all the citations? What value would we possibly add by changing the style? It was clear to me that we had no good reason to change.

Mirando notes that no legal publishers have adopted the McGill Guide. I imagine the other publishers are driven by the same forces that drive us: we’re trying to provide enough information in our citations for users and readers to find source material easily and quickly. But as long as we achieve this end, to what extent do we legal publishers need uniformity in citation style outside our own publications?

We have the constraints that come with creating and checking large numbers of citations. Every step needs to be done accurately; accuracy costs money. Over the past couple of years, we have even abandoned parallel citations. Given the decline of the print reports, and the ease of finding primary law on CanLII, we just couldn’t justify the effort of including parallel cites. We have had no negative feedback about this change.

The true revolution in citation practice was the development of the neutral citation; this is where we find uniformity and clarity. How wonderful is the neutral citation! What a tremendous difference has it made! I’d like to express my gratitude again to all those who worked to bring the neutral citation into being.

Given the many problems with the McGill Guide, I agree with Mirando that law schools should develop their own citation guides and teaching materials to meet the needs of legal research and writing students and law school journals. If these align with the style guides of the courts, so much the better.

Mirando suggests that the Canadian legal community develop a free uniform citation guide. I’d be happy to share CLEBC’s knowledge and practice if that would help make it happen, but I don’t think we (CLEBC as a legal publisher) actually need it. We’ll continue to be guided by the constraints of our production process and (most importantly) the needs of our readers.

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