BC Law Institute turns 10

On December 31, 2007 the BC Law Institute celebrated the 10th anniversary of its creation as an independent law reform body.

Executive Director Jim Emmerton and director Kathleen Cunningham, one of the Law Society’s two nominees on BCLI’s board of directors (the other is Peter Ramsay, QC), briefed the Benchers at their January meeting on the institute’s make-up, mission and matters.

“We’re here to talk about who we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going,” Emmerton told the Benchers.

The institute was incorporated in 1997 under the Society Act, following the decision of the previous government to withdraw program funding from the Law Reform Commission of BC after 27 years. Unlike its predecessor, the institute is independent of government, with by-laws providing for the appointment of 14 society members. Eight are nominated by stakeholder organizations — including the Law Society — and six are members-at-large. Each member also serves as a director. Other stakeholders are BC’s Ministry of Attorney General, the BC Branch of the Canadian Bar Association and the deans of the UBC and University of Victoria law schools.

The BC Law Institute’s Strategic Plan defines an ambitious mission:

Be a leader in law reform in carrying out:

  • the best in scholarly law reform research and writing; and
  • the best in outreach relating to law reform.

Emmerton divided the institute’s work into four broad categories: BC law reform; elder law reform; national and international law reform; and public legal education and outreach. He stressed the importance of BCLI’s support network of organizations, committees and advisors.

In 2003 BCLI established the Canadian Centre for Elder Law Studies, following completion of a series of separate projects that seemed to cascade into an open-ended body of work. Entering its fifth year of operation, the centre’s program focuses on three main areas: research and scholarship, law reform, and the development and delivery of information and educational materials. According to the institute’s 2006 annual report, “The Centre consults widely in the development of its program to identify projects and activities that are responsive to the needs of older adults and those who assist and advise them. The Centre also seeks out opportunities to participate in interdisciplinary work with other bodies.”

Cunningham identified the wide recognition of CCELS’s work and the success of its annual Canadian Conference on Elder Law as two examples of the institute’s strong progress toward achieving its mission.

She also talked about the scope of elder law, and the unpredictability of the impact of its issues in people’s lives. “Elder law implications cut across all fields of law, and the experience of aging is a very individual one,” she said. “While mental capacity and health care needs are the obvious issues that can trigger a legal process, many more issues arise — often with little warning and support.”

The BC Law Institute’s ongoing commitment to substantive law reform is reflected in three major projects currently underway. A comprehensive review of BC’s real property law is in its early stages, with a preliminary assessment of the need for reform completed and a two-year research and consultation process about to begin. A two-year examination of the Society Act and the not-for-profit world is scheduled for completion in July; a consultation paper containing over 100 recommendations is currently out for public feedback. And, a review of BC’s antiquated commercial tenancy law got underway in the fall of 2007.

Emmerton read out the terms of s. 7 of BC’s Commercial Tenancy Act — largely unchanged since its proclamation by the BC Legislature in 1897 — to demonstrate the need for updating that legislation: “Every person shall and may have the like remedy by distress and by impounding and selling the same, in cases of rentseck, rents of assize, and chief rents, as in case of rents reserved on lease, any law or usage to the contrary notwithstanding.”

An often-overlooked aspect of the institute’s work is its management of the legacy of the Law Reform Commission of BC. All of the Final Reports produced by the Commission — over 140 research briefs on a wide range of topics — have been made available to the public via BCLI’s website at www.bcli.org. The institute also has an inventory of the Law Reform Commission’s printed reports and documents, which are available for purchase.

Emmerton said that, while the institute remains committed to pursing independent legal research and law reform — as opposed to promoting advocacy interests — public support is vital to the organization’s long-term viability. He noted the importance of foundation and project funding received from the Law Foundation since the institute’s inception, and stressed the significance of the ongoing support provided by the provincial government.

“A three-year funding program established by the Ministry of Attorney General for the institute in 2003 provided the stability that allowed us to undertake a range of new and ongoing commitments,” Emmerton said. “Most notably, that ministry funding — which has recently been extended — allowed the institute to proceed with establishing and developing the Canadian Centre for Elder Law Studies as a significant national resource.”

“While BCLI has grown considerably through its first decade, the institute’s core operating challenge continues to be the balancing of our resources and demands,” Emmerton concluded. “We’ve defined ‘success through collaboration’ as a strategic key to our future outlook: developing projects and sharing resources with carefully chosen partners.”