Time After Time

During more than 50 years at the Faculty of Law, Interim Dean David R. Percy has repeatedly enhanced and advanced the legal profession

Helen Metella - 31 January 2020

Don't expect David R. Percy, QC, to ever coast to a finish, not even as he completes his 51st year as a member of the University of Alberta's Faculty of Law.

Last July 1, when others with his remarkable length of service might see every exit as irresistible, he took on another demanding commitment in a career that has been packed with them - he became the Faculty of Law's interim dean.

The Hon. Russell Brown, a justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, and a faculty member of UAlberta Law from 2004 to 2013, sums it up perfectly when he describes Percy as "truly inexhaustible."

Percy previously served as dean of law from 2002 to 2009, so he certainly didn't need to round out his experience. However, when the selection committee searching for a new dean requested some breathing space, Percy agreed to step in until the newly announced incoming dean - Professor Barbara Billingsley - takes over this July.

"We have a distinguished history, an excellent group of professors and vibrant students who are so stimulating to teach," said Percy. "It was a fulfilling adventure the first time and I expected no less again."

His first era as dean covered a period when the Faculty both planned and executed numerous ambitious projects - the Law Centre was renovated, a joint degree program was established with the University of Colorado, and Law Campaign 2008 raised more than $20 million during the Faculty's centenary year, creating funding for new teaching positions and scholarships.

Percy is also the Borden Ladner Gervais Chair of Energy Law and Policy, a first-of-its-kind position in Canada which he has held since it was created in 2010.

But long before any of those accomplishments, Percy's career was characterized by a zest for shouldering sizeable tasks.

Water Law Pioneer

Hailing from South Shields, Tyneside, in the United Kingdom, a former coal mining and shipbuilding town with a local reputation as a seaside resort, Percy earned his law degree at Oxford.

He followed that with an LLM from the University of Virginia, where alumni included Robert and Edward Kennedy, and Robert Mueller, and where he was taught Comparative Law by Antonin Scalia, a future judge of the U.S. Supreme Court.

"He was only 22 years old when he started teaching law at the University of Alberta, so he was younger than a lot of his students," said former dean, Phil Bryden, in a video made about Percy in 2013 on the occasion of him receiving the University Cup.

Added Percy, in the same video, "for several years I had to keep my age a closely guarded secret. That's probably why I err on the side of formality in class … I wore a jacket and tie to class, partly because I perspired so freely out of nervousness that I could wring my shirt out at the end of the class."

His first class of students included now-former Ethics Commissioner, Justice Marguerite Trussler and now-Chief Justice Catherine Fraser, the latter "a formidable presence in that class," remembered Percy. In the video, Fraser says: "He was obviously young … he looked like a fair-haired Paul McCartney."

Shortly after arriving at UAlberta Law, at the suggestion of then-Dean Gerard La Forest (who went on to become a judge of the Supreme Court of Canada), Percy started teaching Water Law. At the time, it was an almost entirely unexplored field in Western Canada. Among his achievements in the area, he spent seven years on a committee that drafted Alberta's Water Act, which came into force in 1999. It created a framework for balancing conservation and management of water with industry and government's need to achieve economic growth.

In 2002, Percy drafted a similar framework for Namibia, when he helped develop its Aquaculture Act to encourage that country's fish farming industry. Since 2000, he has worked on Water Law and aquaculture in six African countries, under the banner of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

Expert Witness

He was an expert witness in a hearing on Maori water rights before the Waitangi Tribunal in New Zealand, which Percy recalls as "one of the most exciting experiences of my professional life." He has also worked on projects concerning the British Columbia Water Sustainability Act, and Water Law in Ontario and Quebec.

Percy's interest in Water Law soon broadened to include the larger field of Natural Resources Law and, in particular, Oil and Gas Law. In those fields, he was an expert witness before what was then the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board, in the coalbed methane hearings. For 30 years, he has been actively involved in teaching and research activities for the Canadian Energy Law Foundation.

Additionally, Percy is an authority on Contracts and Construction Law. He is co-editor of Contracts: Cases and Commentaries,10th edition (Thomson Reuters), a widely used text in law schools nationally, and he wrote The Framework of Water Rights Legislation in Canada (1989), as well as books on wetlands and groundwater.

For his outstanding distinction in scholarly research, teaching and service, in 2013 Percy was awarded the University Cup, the highest honour that UAlberta can bestow on an academic - becoming the Faculty of Law's first recipient.

He has received numerous other awards for his eminence as a law professor, including the W.P.M. Kennedy Award for outstanding merit as a law teacher in Canada, and the university's Rutherford Award for excellence in undergraduate teaching, and the Faculty's Tevie H. Miller Teaching Excellence Award.

Says Mary Moreau, Chief Justice of the Court of Queen's Bench of Alberta, who met Percy as a first-year law student in the late 1970s: "He is a man of great integrity and modest character, rigorous in his approach to the law and affable and engaging with his students."