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Jonathan Black-Branch, Dean of Law

Meet the Dean: Jonathan Black-Branch, Robson Hall, Faculty of Law

August 23, 2016 — 

Earlier this year, the Board of Governors approved the appointment of Jonathan Black-Branch as Dean of Law, effective July 1. He recently shared insight into his vision, background and goals with UM Today.

What is your vision for the Faculty of Law moving forward?

For me the vision is clear.  Robson Hall, Faculty of Law needs to be an innovative and creative leader in legal education.  We must prepare our students for careers in the legal profession whilst encouraging them to be independent thinkers for a range of employment opportunities throughout their work life.  They must approach the law with confidence, built on appropriate legal knowledge and sound professional skills.  They should evaluate the legal process from an informed critical perspective.

We at Robson Hall must build on our current strengths to enhance our JD degree to be practice-based, research-informed with teaching excellence and innovation.  This is best achieved through experiential learning and contact with the profession.  Knowledge delivery has to come from the highest quality professors who are leaders in their respective fields both nationally and internationally.

Students must learn from practitioners who understand the challenges of modern practice in an increasingly global service industry. Comparative and international perspectives play an essential role for students to develop their own voice in order to understand their home (local) systems and to offer their expertise to their clients and to keep a critical eye for moving law reform forward.  That triangulation of Teaching, Research and Practice is at the heart of my vision with students at the front and centre of this focus.

What do you look forward to the most?

I am looking forward to working with the students, faculty, staff and legal professionals.  I sense an energy and commitment to Robson Hall.

I see the students at the heart of what we do and feel there is real excitement and enthusiasm with them. They seem dedicated to their studies and their legal careers.  There is a passion which is an important factor for establishing a successful legal career.

I also see a passion in the faculty to their teaching and research.  They believe in Robson Hall and are dedicated to its success and achievements. We can lead in a number of areas and I look forward to working with the faculty to enhance the profile of Robson Hall.

My workings with the staff in the past weeks has been delightful.  There is a friendly and professional atmosphere and a collegiality that makes the work environment an enjoyable place.  I am encouraged by their willingness and commitment to the students and faculty making an invaluable contribution to Robson Hall.

Overall, I see teaching to be at the heart of the university and research as an integral component of what we do.  In Law, links to the legal profession are essential to achieving excellence in teaching and vital to enhancing and complementing our research obligations.  I have been heartened by the overwhelming support and commitment from the legal profession and community as a whole.

I am very much looking forward to the coming academic year, working with our students, faculty, staff and legal professionals.

What unique perspective do you bring to the faculty?

I believe that everyone is individual coming with unique experiences.  There is no question that I am a product of my background in terms of education, work and broader societal influences.  I believe it is vital to give people their dignity and not to judge them.

It is important to keep an open mind and not to underestimate an individual’s contribution in this fascinating world.  This openness has allowed me the opportunity to explore the world through education, work and travel.  I have lived and worked in a variety of communities both across Canada and elsewhere.

I have had opportunities in various provinces including, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia, gaining valuable insight into the lives of people from various walks of life, in different geographical locations and experiencing a wide range of communities, including Francophone, Indigenous, remote, rural and urban, as well as industrial and cosmopolitan settings.

From my earliest years I was involved with the 4-H Club and St John Ambulance working as a volunteer at our local hospital. Later in university I worked as a Millwright Apprentice for two summers at a pulp and paper mill and for a summer with the Department of Oceans and Fisheries Canada on a research project on salmon migration.

Throughout university I also worked as a supply teacher, indeed my old High School was my initiation ground into substitute teaching.  My first job was as an educator in Thompson, MB where I worked at a Middle School and also taught English to elderly women preparing for Canadian citizenship.

As a relatively young man living in that community and working with a wide cross-section of people afforded me a deeper understanding of humanity and the need to recognize everyone’s unique contribution. These views were later strengthened as a researcher and as a lawyer and university professor where I have since taught a wide range of courses in a number of countries including Canada, the US, Germany, Denmark, Switzerland, the UK and Saudi Arabia.

I think my experience as a Magistrate has particularly deepened my understanding of societal issues.  I have been exposed to a full range of criminal and civil matters at the grass-roots level ranging from drug trafficking (closing a crack house), domestic violence, fraud and most every type of offence against the person and property.  I have witnessed first-hand the criminal justice at the ground level having conducted a multiplicity of bail hearings, trials, sentencing for a wide range of offences and also presided over the case management for defendants charged with murder.

I believe this combination of work experience, education and meeting a wide range of people from various walks of life and witnessing first hand living in many communities how people make their way in the world provides me with a unique vantage point from which to understand and approach the work of Dean of Robson Hall.

What pursuits do you enjoy beyond academia?

I am a dedicated runner who loves the outdoors.  I enjoy nature and landscapes in all forms and love to see plants and wildlife in their natural environment.  I firmly believe that one’s overall wellness is rooted to nature and our natural surroundings.

I enjoy the arts in most forms and have a particular interest in art and antiques.  I enjoy travelling and have been to a range of countries. I am a fan of many sports including football, rugby, baseball (a big Blue Jays fan – both the bird and the team), rowing and cricket (did I mention ice hockey?).   I am looking forward to seeing both the Jets and Blue Bombers in action!

What is your academic and research background?

I am a legal academic and lawyer with over 25 years of experience in teaching, research and practice. I have written a wide range of peer-reviewed journal articles, legal briefs and consultancy reports.  I completed a doctorate (DPhil) at the Faculty of Law, University of Oxford and a PhD at the University of Toronto examining the influence of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms on the administration of education.

I am a qualified teacher with a Post-Graduate Diploma in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (PGDip) from the University of Oxford and practicing lawyer at Lincoln’s Inn (London) having completed my law degree followed by the Bar Professional Course at the Inns of Court School of Law and pupillage in London.  In addition, I am a Justice of the Peace (England & Wales), sitting as a Magistrate in Oxfordshire.

My research focuses on three central themes, disarmament, judicial practice and commercial arbitration. Firstly, my research examines the implementation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty 1968, specifically, nuclear disarmament; non-proliferation; and security and safety of the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, examining the interdependencies of these three pillars in implementing and enforcing nuclear international legal obligations.

Effectively, I consider competing legal approaches to non-proliferation and regulating nuclear weapons within the contemporary national and global context and ultimately present options for future legal and diplomatic development in this field.  I am the Chairman of the International Law Association Committee on Non-Proliferation, Nuclear Weapons and Contemporary International Law (concerned with the legality of the threat, or use, of nuclear weapons and the implementation and enforcement of nuclear obligations in international law), preparing and presenting bi-annual reports.  We recently hosted two research conferences funded with the generosity of the Fritz Thyssen Foundation (Germany), and convened six Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Round Table events.

In addition, I am particularly proud to have also organized two student-focused Round Tables (2015 and 2016) at Dar Al-Hekma University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (an all-female university) where I am a Visiting Professor of Comparative Law.  I am also the co-editor of a book series on Nuclear Non-Proliferation in International Law with volume three now in press.

My second area of interest is judicial standards. I am a member of the Commonwealth Magistrates and Judges Association and in the past have organized a five day conference entitled: Community Justice and Judicial Independence: Local Issues, Commonwealth Standards.  I lead a Magna Carta project examining issues of liberty and the right to a fair trial.

I also have an interest in arbitration, mediation and dispute settlement and I am the co-editor of the Swiss Standard and Model Clauses Handbook of International Commercial Arbitration.

I will continue to research in these areas and hope to entice other members of faculty and lawyers in the profession to become involved with my research.

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