Why Codify (Encore)

In connection with yesterday’s post, in which I discussed the reasons for the codification of the civil law of Lower Canada that were expressed in the preamble of the statute which set up the commission responsible for the codification, my friend Alastair C.F. Gillespie pointed me to some speeches by Sir George-Étienne Cartier who was responsible for that legislation. These speeches confirm, though with some interesting nuances, the motivations expressed in the preamble of the Codification Act ― which mainly had to do with the difficulties the inhabitants and the lawyers of Lower Canada faced in accessing their laws, notably because these laws were most unavailable in English or, sometimes, in French, and indeed, in the case of some French legal sources, unavailable in Canada in either language.

One such speech was delivered upon the introduction in the legislature of the United Province of Canada of the bill that would eventually become the Codification Act. Cartier explained that codification was necessary so that Lower Canada’s “inhabitants of diverse origins” would all know their laws. (130; translation mine, here and throughout.) I suppose this might be a reference to the linguistic concerns that took pride of place in the preamble of the Codification Act and, as I will shortly show, in Cartier’s recollections of his fight for codification. However, the reference is a strangely oblique one, in comparison with the straightforward language of these later sources. I wonder whether it does not make more sense to read this passage as showing that Cartier subscribed to the idea, admittedly more popular with common lawyers than with civilians, that a people’s laws are its customs, its heritage passed on from generation to generation. If people “of diverse origins” live together, each group will only know its own customs, and not those of their fellow citizens ― unless, they are educated by a positive act of legislation. This motive, however, has not made it to the Act’s preamble.

Codification was also necessary, Cartier argued, because “the inhabitants of lower Canada, while they feel the wisdom of the French laws that regulate their persons and their properties, can only study the sources of these laws after immense research, which codification will spare them.” (130) Cartier went on to list the legal instruments which “we do not possess” (130). Legal research in 1857 did, indeed, lack the resources of 2015. This concern was, as I explained in my last post, prominent in the preamble of the Codification Act.

Much later, in 1871, Cartier reminded an (anglophone) audience that before codification, the issue of civil law was a matter of great concern to the “English-speaking inhabitants. All admired the spirit of the system, the gentlemen of the profession as well as the others, but they could not all read the text and understand it for themselves.” (717) Cartier boasted that “[t]o remove this just cause of discontent, I demanded and obtained the revision of our laws of Lower Canada and their printing in both languages.” (717)  Indeed, he added, his response to his opponents among both lawyers and judges was that the codification “was less necessary for the French Canadians than to the English population, and that it was a matter of justice towards them.” (717)

This is an interesting counterpoint to the claims of the 1980s Québec nationalists, who counted “institutions” ― including, perhaps first and foremost, the civil law and, specifically, the Civil Code ― among the markers of Québec’s “distinct society” (alongside language, culture, and history). According to the man responsible for that law’s codification, it was done more for the benefit of the anglophones than for that of their francophone compatriots. Of course, Cartier was a politician, both in 1857 and in 1871, and no doubt chose his words for his audiences. Still, even allowing for this fact, these words are of some interest to us today.

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