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The Human Side of Law

The Human Side of Law

Q&A with Professor Emmanuelle Bernheim

Emmanuelle Bernheim is a new faculty member at the University of Ottawa in the Civil Law section of the Faculty of the Law. CHLPE’s Pascal Thibeault sat down with Emmanuelle to talk about the real-world impacts of the law, her love of field research, and her development of an interdisciplinary legal clinic for mental health-related issues.

Emilie Azevedo

Jan 2021

Pascal: Can you tell me why you decided to study law?

Emmanuelle: Well I actually never finished my law degree. I started studying literature at the University of Montreal because I thought I was going to become a writer. I worked in a publishing house but the commercial aspect of literature turned me off. At that point I started taking some classes in law. I also studied criminology, sociology and social intervention.

Pascal: And you graduated with a multidisciplinary Bachelors, right?

Emmanuelle: Exactly, and then I went to law school for my graduate studies. I got into law out of curiosity. I never felt a calling from the law. The technical aspects of my law courses bothered me, but on the other hand I saw law as an object for reflection. In first year, I took a course on human rights. I started questioning the judicial system. A lot of things we talked about in class didn't make sense to me. Especially when it came to the “legal personality” of our country and the ways it could restrict someone’s freedoms in the name of civil law.

Pascal: What do you mean when you say that the technical side of law bothers you?

Emmanuelle: Well, civil law is taught in a very dry way. It’s like a recipe that you need to follow carefully, with no opportunity to change the recipe. It was as if we didn't have the right to think differently because at the end of the day, the law can't have an opinion. It was only later, after taking other courses, that I understood civil law is just taught that way. Future lawyers and practitioners are trained to follow the recipe of the law. It bothered me that training in civil law didn’t stimulate one’s “legal imagination”.

Pascal: Can you tell us more about your journey in academia? You did a multidisciplinary Bachelors and then you did a Masters in Law. How did you end up at the University of Ottawa?

Emmanuelle: After my B.A. I applied for the Master of Law program, without really knowing what I was going to do with it. My thesis supervisor Pierre Noreau was a jurist who had also done multidisciplinary studies, so he had that academic openness I wanted. I fell in love with field research—it brings a sociological approach to law which compensates for its more technical aspects. That being said, I still think you need to master the technical function of law to be able to look at it from different perspectives一that's when you can start questioning it.

I did a master's degree in psychiatric assessment and then I did my doctorate. It was a joint thesis, which means I have a doctorate in sociology and another one in law. Before finishing my doctorate I started working at the Université de Québec à Montréal (UQAM).

In the last few years I’ve had the opportunity to study law under the lens of mental health. Specifically I have been looking into civil law, self-representation in court, and youth protection.

Pascal: What kind of research projects are you interested in supervising?

Emmanuelle: Frankly I find it very interesting when students have their own project. It's an opportunity for me to learn a lot. One of the difficulties when you become a teacher is that you lose the time to read. It's really through the students that I develop a lot of knowledge.

One of the central elements for the students I work with is really the method. That is to say I do mostly field research or empirical research. I don't supervise projects in positive [substantive/technical] law—I'm more interested in projects that use a multidisciplinary methodology. In my opinion, the objective of supervision is more to guide the students in their approach to the law than to learn points of law.

Pascal: I think the majority of law students will have graduated without doing a field research project. Can you explain what field research is?

Emmanuelle: Field research is really just going out into the "field" to do interviews, make observations, complete surveys and things like that. In my experience, it's only in the field that I really understood the dynamics of the law. By talking to people and being interested in what practitioners had to say. That's how I built my projects. If you're studying law in an office, then you're out of touch with reality—you should immerse yourself in a culture if you truly want to understand it. Usually in the field you will discover things that have never been documented by anyone and that are nowhere in the literature. That's why field research is so important.

Pascal: In the next five years, what would you like to accomplish at uOttawa?

Emmanuelle: One of the projects I’m working on right now is the development of an interdisciplinary legal clinic for mental health-related issues. It's going to be a collaborative project with the School of Nursing and the School of Social Work. People with mental health problems also have all kinds of legal problems, whether it be related to work or housing, etc. This project is at the crossroads of many areas of law.

This project is amazing because it's not just a service we will be able to offer the community, but it will also be used for research. Also, through the years, students have told me they want to be put in contact with students from other departments and faculties. This allows them to further understand the contexts in which they will legally intervene.

Pascal: If you could change one thing about the way law is practiced what would it be?

Emmanuelle: That's a good question. I think if I could choose just one thing, I wish lawyers could more directly measure the impact of their practices. At the moment there is a lot of paternalism in legal practice. For example we assume it's in the best interest of people with mental illness to be hospitalized. If a patient refuses treatment we assume it's because they are ill or “acting out”. Practitioners in this field seem to always know what's best for their clients—but in reality these issues are much more complex. I find that the question of rights is really put aside when it comes to dealing with marginalized members of society.

I don't mean to say that doctors are putting their patients' rights aside! I think their concerns are clinical—which is normal. However, in my opinion the primary concern for lawyers should be the client’s rights, their civil rights, and their judicial rights. So if I could change one thing about law, putting rights back at the heart of the practice seems essential to me.