Bilingual law students refine French legal language skills

Elizabeth Duke and Daniel Waring attend program alongside judges and legal professionals

Sarah Kent - 04 March 2020

Learning legal terminology is hard enough in one language, let alone two. For Elizabeth Duke and Daniel Waring, third-year University of Alberta Faculty of Law students, it is worth the hard work.

Earlier this year, they joined judges and legal professionals in Victoria, BC, for an intensive French legal language training program. The first day started with a test of participants' existing vocabulary. "It was tough. We were like, 'Oh no! What have we gotten ourselves into?'" said Duke.

The week-long program was hosted by the Centre canadien de français juridique (Canadian Center for Legal French), which provides workshops on French legal vocabulary and responds to the need for more language training for the legal system. This year, for the first time, law students from across Canada were able to attend alongside judges, crown prosecutors, defence lawyers, clerks, probation officers and interpreters.

The 2020 program focused on legal vocabulary for Criminal Law, specifically in the context of family violence.

Both students said they expanded their vocabulary and gained insights into the francophone judicial system. The program culminated in simulated trials to test participants' knowledge, presided over by Provincial Court judges.

Duke and Waring had front row seats to the judges' decision-making process for the simulated trials, with the chance to hear them weigh the evidence and assess the arguments. That was "definitely one of the highlights," said Duke.

"It was an important opportunity to connect with the francophone legal community," said Waring.

The program was recommended to Duke and Waring by Justin Kingston, a partner at McCuaig Desrochers LLP and an instructor at the University of Alberta Faculty of Law. He teaches Topics in French Law, a UAlberta Law course that improves students' skills in French legal writing and advocacy.

Waring studied French as a second language and then double majored in French and Spanish during his undergraduate degree. Duke, whose academic background is in French language and literature, participated in the Michel Bastarache Moot in 2019, a competition that allows students to practise their legal writing skills and oral arguments exclusively in French.

Legal language poses unique challenges when being translated because it requires such specific terminology, said the students. Literal translations from English to French fail to capture the right meaning, which becomes a significant problem in the legal context.

Waring noted that there have been cases where the French and English versions of a law differ based on language choice. Being able to read the law in both languages allows legal professionals to understand the nuance of the differing versions.

Bilingualism in law has other benefits, too. Bilingual legal professionals serve a wider community and ensure access to justice for francophone communities in Western Canada. French legal language services are highly sought-after in Alberta, which has the fourth-largest francophone population in Canada.

"The need will only grow," said Duke.

Duke and Waring are part of the executive membership of the association des étudiants en droit francophones (Francophone Law Students' Association), a tightly knit club that welcomes all levels of French. The club is hosting a networking event on March 24. Students interested in attending should contact for further details.