We are Justice

Michael Audet and Luc Vachon

Photo of Michael Audet and Luc Vachon

Luc Vachon and Michael Audet are lawyers who like working with words.

“I wanted a job where I could write and have a client who would give me the opportunity to improve my writing, a client for whom it would be important to have a clear, well-structured text,” says Luc, Acting Senior Legislative Counsel.

He started out in private practice but found clients aren’t willing to pay for the time it takes to create well-written contracts.

So eleven years ago, Luc left private practice for a job that allowed him to write in a legal capacity. He became a legislative drafter with the Department of Justice Canada.

It didn’t take long for Legislative Counsel Michael Audet to discover that private practice wasn’t for him either.

Before law school, Michael did an undergraduate degree in English literature. The role of legislative drafter was a good fit – it marries words and the law.

The method of simultaneously drafting a bill in both official languages is called co-drafting, and it is unique to Canada.

Michael and Luc are two of the 28 legislative counsel in the Department’s Legislation Section who are involved in drafting the federal government’s bills.

“A bill is a legislative expression of a policy. The very first thing we need to do is have a sound understanding of the policy, as much as time and circumstances allow, so that we can properly express it,” says Michael.

“We try to understand what we need to create,” adds Luc. “First, we discuss what results should be achieved with legal counsel who are experts in the field and policy experts who have developed the policy. Then we work on what the new rules should be.”

The actual process of writing legislation involves drafters and instructing officers who come from the government department which is sponsoring the bill. They might be legal experts who work in the legal services unit, representing the policy interests of their client department. Often, though, they are experts in their field – anyone from economists to scientists.
The writing of the legislation is done in teams of two: a French drafter and an English drafter. They work in specially designed drafting rooms, which have a long table in the centre with two computers mounted on each side. The two drafters sit together on one side of the table, each with a computer. One drafts the legislation in French, while the other simultaneously drafts it in English.

The instructing officers sit on the opposite side of the table with two computers in front of them, literally reading the bill in both languages as it is being written, and making sure that what it says is what is intended by the policy. The instructing officer makes comments on the text, and the drafters can make the corresponding changes to the legislation on the spot.

This method of simultaneously drafting a bill in both official languages is called co-drafting, and it is unique to Canada.

The drafters aim to write a text that sounds natural in each language, as opposed to one being a literal translation of the other version.

“It’s not translation,” Michael points out. “The French means the same thing as the English without being an awkward, clunky word-for-word translation.”

It is a model that started in the late 1970s. Prior to this, the French version was simply a translation of the English text.

“Often it was done at the last minute by a translator who didn’t have much contextual information,” says Luc. “They didn’t have access to the expert in the field, so they didn’t have enough information, so they would stick to the English wording. Unfortunately, following the English text word-by-word made the French text hard to understand and interpret.”

So the co-drafting model was developed, and it has evolved over the years. Delegations have come from other countries to Justice to study the side-by-side drafting process, but Michael and Luc don’t know of any that use a similar system.

However, they are confident that it works for Canada.

Photo of Michael Audet and Luc Vachon