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Canada’s Next Law School?

Most law schools now worry about placing their graduates amidst the growing reality of fewer job prospects. Over the last two years, Lakehead University (ON) and Thompson Rivers University (BC) welcomed students to Canada’s newest law schools with the promise of little more than an uncertain future. The creation of two new law schools during an articling crisis, however, does not appear to have been enough to satiate the appetite of every would-be law school. Trinity Western University, a private Christian university, applied in 2012 to have Canada’s newest accredited law school and British Columbia’s fourth.

Creating a law school is not a light decision and poses many hurdles. The Federation of Law Societies of Canada must approve the program and confirm that its graduates would be qualified to enter into an articling program. The government must approve the request for the university itself to have a law program.

Although its status as a private Christian university gives credence to the idea that TWU would be providing a unique service, this status also brings controversy. In a recently-publicised letter, Bill Flanagan, President of the Canadian Council of Law Deans (CCLD), strongly condemned the application to the Federation of Canadian Law Societies, stating that the community covenant that all TWU students are required to sign was “a matter of great concern for all the members of the CCLD.” He singled out the provision that requires abstinence “from sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman,” stating that it “specifically contemplates that gay, lesbian or bisexual students may be subject to disciplinary measures including exclusion.”

The Federation of Law Societies refuses to comment on the status of applications before a decision is released, but notes that their mandate is only to assess whether a law program meets the national requirements, rather than to investigate admissions-based policies. As a result, it is not necessarily a part of this mandate to accommodate Mr. Flanagan’s request that the Federation investigate whether the covenant is inconsistent with federal or provincial law, and examine its potentially discriminatory nature. Expanding the scope of the Federation might mean limiting the options of law students that want unconventional educations. But limiting such options may be more consistent with the nature of law as a self-regulating profession.

This is not the first time that TWU has been embroiled in a licensing debate due to its Christian mandate. In 2001, the Supreme Court of Canada released a decision confirming that the university should be allowed to open a teacher’s college, based on their right to freedom of conscience and religion.

TRU would set many precedents if its application were approved. As the first private institution in Canada to have a law school as well as the first religious one to do so, it might even inspire more applications. But in light of the Federation’s limited mandate and the unusual nature of the case, the truly precedential event might be for the Federation not to approve TWU’s application on the grounds that Mr. Flanagan suggests. And during a time of limited job opportunity, the students who will actually absorb the impact of dozens of new recruits continue to have the least say.

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