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Mammoth case law project complete

Law students' externship contributes important resource for practicing bar, judiciary

May 29, 2020 — 

With extreme patience, diligence, organization and co-ordination, two Robson Hall law students have completed a “mammoth” case law annotation project that will benefit both Crown prosecutors and defence lawyers, and members of the judiciary.

Master of Laws student Brayden McDonald and third-year Juris Doctor student Kathleen Kerr-Donohue finished a Year in Review project that involved annotating all criminal law appeals at the Manitoba Court of Appeal (MBCA) and Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) from November 2018 to March 2020 as part of an externship course offered through the Faculty of Law. Professor Richard Jochelson and Assistant Professor David Ireland, who are members of the faculty’s Robson Crim Group, a research cluster of professors specializing in criminal law, supervised the project.

“Every year, students develop these annotated case lists for posting on and for presentation at the Crown-Defence Conference,” Jochelson explained, referring to an annual conference that has in the past, brought all members of the Manitoba criminal law bar together.

Jochelson, together with Kerr-Donohue and McDonald, were able to present part of the work at the December, 2019 conference. Their power point from that presentation is available on the Robson Crim blog site. The entire document of the finished Year in Review: SCC and MBCA Annotated Cases Nov 2018-March 2020 is also now available to students, lawyers, and members of the judiciary on the Robson Crim Legal Blog.

“Greater accessibility benefits the profession and those it serves, especially in a time where we have thousands of cases at our finger-tips,” said McDonald, for whom the project counted as coursework towards his LL.M..

Kerr-Donohue took the externship as a pass/fail course for her final J.D. year. “I found it to be an incredibly rewarding and demanding externship that was very complementary to what was otherwise, a very clinically-oriented final year for me.”

“It’s a gruelling task and not necessarily glorious – but it forms a welcome resource for our bar,” said Jochelson. “It’s a very time intensive task with over one hundred pages of delivered work. The criminal bar is quite appreciative.”

According to McDonald, the project was not all that complicated, as it involved working with a pre-defined data set. The most time-consuming part was writing case briefs, which all law students must become adept at. “Where it became more difficult was in deciding what to record for each case, and then sorting and interpreting trends in the data once it had been gathered,” McDonald explained. “When we started out, we really had no idea what we would end up saying about the cases we would collect. We knew that we would write a paper, present basic statistics on the data, and try to highlight certain cases and contexts that appeared. We also knew that we wanted to focus on practical information that would be helpful to students and practitioners.”

“Kathleen and Brayden have created a tremendous resource for the Bench and Bar of Manitoba,” said Ireland. “Practitioners have “one stop” access to insightful summaries of Supreme Court and Manitoba Court of Appeal cases, helpfully divided by category for ease of reference. The criminal case law review will benefit law students, criminal lawyers and judges in Manitoba and beyond.”

“Kathleen and Brayden have been a joy to supervise because they are both self-starters, are incredibly bright, talented and motivated,” said Jochelson. “They also write well and are gifted analytically. I hope the official launch of this document demonstrates to the bar that Robson Hall graduates top tier talent that is the future of practice.”

Jochelson added that a paper summarizing the project will appear in the fall 2020 Criminal Law edition of the Manitoba Law Journal, which will be guest co-edited by himself and Ireland.


Advice for Future Students

The Year in Review project does not end with McDonald and Kerr-Donohue. McDonald advises future law students taking on this externship project to be aware of three key elements needed to complete the review successfully: organization, communication and commitment.

Organizing the cases once they have been briefed and logged, is an important investment of time. “While staying organised might sound obvious, it can be difficult to set out and stick to a comprehensive case recording plan from the very beginning, especially when you do not know how much of the information (such as docket numbers, presiding judges, etc) might actually be useful at the end,” said McDonald. “There is a temptation to cut corners and cover ground, especially when the number of cases to be briefed and recorded is so large; however it is a temptation that has to be curbed to avoid difficulties in the long run.”

Communication was also critical: the students found that working effectively as a team meant setting goals and clearly delineating responsibilities and timelines. And it had to be done professionally. “I think we were very lucky in that Kathleen and I were able to work well together without any real friction,” said McDonald. “A professional approach allows for more open discussion on how to achieve objectives, and for the project to go more smoothly as a whole.”

Finally, their commitment to completing the project helped them reach the finish line. As McDonald observed, “It seems obvious, but when your deadlines are months or even semesters away, it can be easy to put off work. The only way to tackle such a massive project is to consistently chip away at it. This is especially important when the end deliverable is going to be seen by members of the profession. You could rush through it at the last minute, but it will show, and if you are a student entering into this profession, sloppy work is not what you want prospective employers to see.”

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