By France Allard*, General Counsel,
Legislative Services Branch,
Department of Justice Canada


The somewhat recent interest in bijuralism is the reflection of a new receptiveness on the part of local laws and practices to the laws and practices of other cultures. The phenomenon of bijuralism exists in several countries and in several national and international relations contexts. It is difficult to say whether this interest is a result of market globalization and the increasing proliferation of international commercial agreements, but the need to know about and understand bijuralism is obvious.

Bijuralism can be approached from several angles. The simple co-existence of two legal traditions, the interaction between two traditions, the formal integration of two traditions within a given context (e.g. in an agreement or a legal text) or, on a more general level, the recognition of and respect for the cultures and identities of two legal traditions. However, beyond the factual situation that it presupposes with respect to the co-existence of traditions, bijuralism raises the issue of the interaction or relationship between different legal traditions. In general and especially in the Canadian context, it calls for an examination of the relationship between civil law and common law.

In the Canadian context, it should however be noted that the issue of aboriginal law requires a pluralist approach to understanding the relationship between traditions. Beyond bijuralism, the existence of legal pluralism in Canada should be borne in mind. The importance of the raising the issue of the relationship between common law, civil law and aboriginal law finds expression in the judgments of the Supreme Court of Canada.[1]

Thus, in Canada, while the term is a rather recent invention, bijuralism itself is not a new phenomenon. A brief description of historical points of references in the development of Canadian and Quebec bijuralism will make it easier to understand the relationship between the two traditions. Considered as grounded in a factual coexistence, bijuralism is not new. The legal framework in which it is set has existed for some time.

Although the origins of Canadian bijuralism are generally thought to be found in the Quebec Act, 1774, the duality of legal traditions existed in New France from the moment the English and the French occupied at the same time the same territory. After the Conquest in 1760, the former French territory became English through the Treaty of Paris of 1763. No mention was made of the laws, customs or usages of the country at that time, but during this period the courts were administered by militia captains whose decisions were generally based on the Coutume de Paris. The Treaty of Paris was followed by the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which declared the Province of Quebec an English colony and set common law as the applicable law before the courts.[2] However, despite the imposition of the common law system, the "French" inhabitants continued to follow the custom in their dealings between each other. French civil law survived trough practice. Thus, even though the inhabitants of the Province were officially subject to English laws, the duality in traditions in fact persisted.

In response to this situation, Governor Murray issued an order on September 17, 1764, setting up the civil courts. Judgments were to be made in accordance with the laws of England, but at the same time judges of the lower courts were authorised to consider French laws and customs in cases between the inhabitants of the Province of Quebec, for those cases which were heard before October 1, 1764. This consideration of French laws was, in fact, extended to all cases between inhabitants of the Province until July 1766 when the order was amended. The new order made the administration of justice "bijural" by providing that "[…] the jury shall be comprised of British-born subjects only in cases or civil actions between British-born subjects, the jury shall be comprised of Canadians only in cases or civil actions between Canadians, and the jury shall be comprised of an equal number of each nationality if one of the parties so requests in cases between British-born subjects and Canadians […]".[3]

The Province of Quebec became officially bijural with the Quebec Act in 1774. Common law and civil law applied across the territory in specific areas.[4] Civil laws were governed by the civil law whereas procedure, the administration of the government and criminal law fell under the common law. This framework for the application of the legal traditions still stands in Quebec. On the other hand, Canada became bijural only when Upper and Lower Canada were joined in the Act of Union, 1841. This framework was accepted and, for certain matters, redefined in the Constitution Act, 1867 through provisions pertaining to the division of powers.[5]

The relationship between civil law and common law was developed within this framework. Depending on the area of law, this framework served as grounds for establishing various relationships between legal traditions. However, notwithstanding the framework in which bijuralism is set, what defines it is the knowledge of traditions, the rules of law applicable to each one, how they are expressed, the influence they have on one another and how they interact. In each case, bijuralism is based on a dialogue between cultures, a mutual recognition of the other, a complementary relationship between the rules specific to each one and their interpretation with respect to the other. The implementation of bijuralism is only possible where these elements are present.

The decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada, the general court of appeal for Canada, must therefore be considered in terms of this dialogue and complementarity relationship between rules and their interpretation. The purpose of this paper is to evaluate the impact the Supreme Court of Canada has had on the recognition and definition of bijuralism in Canada and on the development of the autonomy or, at least, of the equal importance of each tradition in their respective areas of application.

Two periods in the history of the Supreme Court of Canada can be identified with respect to the relationship between the two traditions. The first in which civil law had to forge a path to assert its autonomy in relation to common law to prevent its assimilation thereof (I). The second in which civil law and common law became equally recognized (II).