Volunteering in law — a tool for social justice

Your mindset has to be that you don’t have all the answers in front of you, that you have to dig even deeper, to really achieve justice.  

Volunteering in law — a tool for social justice

Pascale Fournier’s passion for her work is palpable. She is an associate professor at the University of Ottawa, where she also holds a University Chair in legal pluralism and comparative law. Her research and teaching focus on human rights, Islam and Judaism in Europe and North America, children’s rights, criminal law and cultural diversity, and comparative family law. Her main interest? “Women and children in vulnerable situations,” she says.

Professor Fournier and her team of two student-volunteers helped a Muslim woman in a case before the 18th Judicial District Court in Kansas, U.S. The team had been working on the case since 2011, and it recently ended with a remarkable ruling from a social justice perspective.

It all began with a voicemail message for Professor Fournier, who is also a lawyer. It was from a man in the United States. He said he was the brother of a woman named Hala Hamdeh, who was in the midst of a tumultuous divorce against a background of domestic violence. He had read the book Muslim Marriage in Western Courts, written by none other than Pascale Fournier. In his voicemail message, the man was asking for Fournier’s help and expertise to win his sister’s case.

“I agreed to help, for the benefit of this woman and for others in similar situations. With the assistance of two students, we prepared an expert report,” says Fournier. “Hala’s brother translated documents from Arabic to English for us, and he sent us packages and copies of articles. For almost a year and a half, we worked tirelessly, from a distance, to bring justice for Hala.”

Finally, eight months after filing the brief, Pascale provided expert testimony over Skype from the University of Ottawa. She described the experience as quite the challenge for her. The team is pleased with the success of this case, as it will surely be a source of inspiration for others.

“It’s a challenge for society, figuring out how to make sure immigrants are positively integrated in the U.S. and Canada, while ensuring their differences are still respected. In some cases, private international law calls on us to adopt Islamic law in court. These social justice cases have a considerable impact on—and can also threaten—the people involved, especially women and children. Islamic and Rabbinic law can be interpreted in many ways, and it’s my job to show that the most progressive standard should take precedence,” she says.

Pascale is involved in other similar trials in Canada; she has filed her factums, and proceedings will begin shortly. She continues to share her expertise to help women like Hala Hamdeh. The National Judicial Institute also calls on Fournier’s expertise: She gives judges training courses on cultural diversity and law. In addition, the Harvard graduate has participated in several international conferences, notably in Spain, Belgium and the United States, on the topic of burka legislation.

Her advice to students interested in studying law? “Be curious and critical about everything in life. Your mindset has to be that you don’t have all the answers in front of you, that you have to dig even deeper, to really achieve justice.”

And that’s why Fournier has undertaken an extensive field research project with funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The study involves interviewing Jewish and Muslim women in five countries: England, Germany, France, Israel and Canada. She has already published ten articles on the topic, in French and English, and she is hoping to write a book on comparative law that addresses the interaction between religious and secular law, told from the perspective of women.

“Increasingly, fieldwork is providing guidance to lawyers. We have to look at the reality of the situation, really see it at the level of the individual, to properly understand social justice issues,” says Fournier.

Pascale Fournier’s inspiring career has even been selected by the Québec Bar Association to be featured in the TV series Le droit de savoir : Portraits d’avocats aux parcours hors du commun, aux passions et aux réalisations inspirantes. Four lawyers are chosen every year. Learn more about Fournier when her episode airs on December 4 on Canal Savoir and Télé-Québec.

Text: Geneviève Joly
Photo: Faculty of Law, Civil Law Section
Published: October 2012
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Last updated: 2012.11.27