Volume 29 - Number 17 - Thursday, May 29, 1997

Rod Macdonald heads law reform commission

by Diana Grier Ayton

The Liberals have been under attack during this election campaign for not sticking to promises made in their rapidly-becoming-infamous Red Book. But there is one commitment being kept, as law professor Rod Macdonald can attest.

Justice minister Allan Rock has announced parliamentary approval of the establishment of the Law Commission of Canada, an independent body to advise the government on legal policy and law reform issues. Macdonald has agreed to serve a three-year term as president of the commission--and is making a few promises of his own.

"We will be multidisciplinary--this is not just a lawyer's thing--and broadly consultative. Nor is this going to be ivory tower stuff. We will stay focused on the do-able as opposed to the wildly optimistic. I hope we'll be an important link between the kind of really pathbreaking research done in universities--in law, in social work, in all disciplines--and legislative output."

In addition to Macdonald, whose position is full-time and will require that he move to Ottawa, there are four part-time commissioners and a small in-house staff. Most research work will be done on contract. The commissioners will also have a 24-member advisory board drawn from the community.

"The committee will give us feedback on possible research projects, and on the directions we're taking. We need to actively seek to find out what people want and expect from law reform."

When asked if he has some idea of that already, Macdonald replies, "My sense is probably pretty acute but somewhat out of date. I chaired the Task Force on Access to Justice for the Quebec Ministry of Justice in 1989. I have a reasonable understanding of the ill repute in which the legal profession, government, judges and police are held.

"The commission's research agenda is something we will work out first," he says. "We all have a history and background. In my case, I'm interested in public legal education--providing information to the public so people don't get into legal trouble in the first place. Part of that is the Plain Language Movement for contracts. Other things that interest me are alternative dispute resolution, and how laws which appear neutral can significantly disadvantage segments of the population like the poor, visible minorities, single-mother-led households, and so on.

Macdonald recognizes there are limits to the jurisdiction of his commission. "Some of these are provincial rather than federal matters, but there are hot areas of concern--like the question of aboriginal justice. I don't mean land claims, but the fact that so many aboriginals wind up in prison. Why is that happening?"

Other areas he cites are divorce, immigration, bankruptcy and consumer loans.

Once research into these issues has been completed, the commission will be making policy recommendations. But Macdonald says, "The recommendations may not be of the type 'This law is broken--fix it.' They may be of the type 'There shouldn't be any law here at all. This is a social issue best dealt with by other institutions.'"

The commission, which legally comes into being on July 1, is scheduled to meet for three days starting July 4. "I want to hit the ground running," he says. He adds that justice minister Allan Rock is "very committed to this. But who knows what will happen after the election?"

Macdonald says he is equally committed, but not beyond the agreed-upon three years. "I was a one-term dean; I'm a one-term everything. Whatever I do, I do once."

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