A couple of days ago, I posted about the controversy surrounding a proposed new Christian law school in Canada. I questioned whether it’s a good idea to found a new law school in the current environment and wondered whether Canadian law would allow the proposed school, at Trinity Western University in British Columbia, to require its students, faculty and staff to adhere to traditional Christian sexual ethics. Over at First Thoughts, Dr. Janet Epp-Buckingham, a professor at Trinity Western and member of the group that developed the proposal for the new school, objected to some elements of my post, and I offered her the chance to respond more fully. Janet’s response follows below:
Mark Movsesian wrote a blog on January 22 questioning the wisdom of trying to start a law school at Trinity Western University. The university has a 50 year history and is located in a suburb of Vancouver, British Columbia. Mark based some of his concerns on the downturn for lawyers and law schools in the U.S. While legal education has had its issues in the last few years in Canada, the situation is much different in Canada than in the U.S. Actually, the whole university structure is much different, and more regulated, in Canada.
Trinity Western is the largest of only a handful of Christian universities in Canada. There are very few private universities. Most universities are public universities and subsidized by provincial governments. Before a new program can start at any university, public or private, it must be approved by the provincial government. In addition, a law school must also receive approval from the Federation of Law Societies of Canada and provincial law societies before it can be established.
Because law schools can be established without any approvals in the U.S., there are far more. Some are of dubious quality and few of their students pass bar exams.
Trinity Western started thinking about founding a law school about 20 years ago. It is only in the last few years that it appeared feasible. Before serious work on the proposal, a committee visited several law schools at Christian universities in the U.S. We were impressed with their quality and commitment to infusing rich discussions of justice and ethics with strong skills-based curricula.
Canadian law schools at public universities have a more theoretical focus, and less skills focus, than American law schools. This is partly because we have an articling year in Canada, where students are meant to be taught skills by their principals. However, there are not sufficient articling placements for all graduates, perhaps because many principals do not have the time to teach skills to the “newbies” every year. Thus, a law school with a skills-focus might open up new articling positions as graduates will already have turn-key skills.
There is also more demand than supply for law school. Hundreds of Canadians apply to have foreign law degrees recognized in Canada each year. In fact, Bond University in Australia has a Canadian law school with Canadian law professors.
There is also demand for lawyers, particularly among the middle class. Judges, including the Chief Justice of Canada, have raised concerns about access to justice. There are too many unrepresented litigants in the court system.
Trinity Western has put together a strong proposal for a law school curriculum that includes both strong legal theory and strong legal skills. It encourages students to identify needs in society, places where they can serve, rather than follow the well-beaten path to the doors of large firms in big cities.
However, as this proposal has become public and is now before accreditation bodies, it is coming under fire because Trinity Western has a community covenant. Many Christian universities with law schools in the U.S. have similar conduct standards, such as Baylor and Pepperdine. The community covenant at Trinity Western affirms the historic Biblical understanding of marriage as being between a man and a woman. For that reason, the university is labelled discriminatory.
Trinity Western has faced this issue previously. When it sought accreditation for its School of Education, the British Columbia College of Teachers refused on the basis of the community covenant. The university took this to the courts on judicial review. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 2001 that the university’s community covenant is not a bar to having accredited professional programs. The university justifiably feels that this is a settled issue.
Tolerance is, after all, a two way street.