Monday, November 02, 2009

Osgoode Society at 30

I spent Friday at the one-day legal history conference the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History had organized to celebrate its thirtieth anniversary. [added later: and met with surprise and pleasure no less than two self-identified readers of this blog] An impressive number of the founders from 1979 were present (and looking remarkably youthful), but the day was in the OS tradition: lots of new scholarship, a good representation of younger scholars, and a strong leavening of lawyers and judges among the profs of law and history.

Retired Ontario Chief Justice Roy McMurtry was there. In the late 1970s McMurtry was attorney general of Ontario. He just thought the law as a learned profession needed to pay more attention to its history, so he went out and got a legal history society founded, persuaded a thousand or so of his close friends and colleagues to sign up as supporting members, and recruited Peter Oliver of York University to launch a publication program.

It's been gangbusters ever since, and the field of legal history has thrived for several reasons. It's partly because people interested in the field know there is now a possibility of publication. Partly because legal history seems to allow scholars to take up political-constitutional issues that have not been fashionable in history departments for a long time. Partly because law schools have ceased to be purely black-letter, "train 'em for practice" places and started to give more encouragement to all kinds of legal scholarship, including historical studies.

But the existence of the society with its broad reach, from academic scholars to practising lawyers, has clearly given the field a tremendous boost. That enables the Osgoode Society to draw on the support of law societies and law foundations -- and to hold its conferences in congenial surroundings like Osgoode Hall.

The OS also launched three new books last week: Blake Brown on 19th century juries, Barry Wright's collection on Canadian state trials, and William Kaplan's biography of Ivan Rand. As soon as they update the OS website a little, you will be able to read about them. [Update: actually, you can here.]

(And, blush, they will publish a book of mine next year.)