A humanitarian approach to justice

Posted on Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Pascale Fournier recieving the Award for Excellence from the Canada Arab Business Council in 2014.

by Monique Roy-Sole

Canadian Lawyer Magazine recently named Pascale Fournier one of the 25 most influential lawyers in Canada—but the impact of this University of Ottawa civil law professor reaches well beyond Canada’s borders.

Professor Fournier was chosen for her humanitarian involvement and for the international scope of her research, which examines the complex interplay between religious and secular law. Her name features alongside that of her mentor, Louise Arbour, a former Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada and Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal.

For the past few years, Professor Fournier has been conducting socio-judicial research to better understand the impact of religious family law on Muslim, Jewish and Christian women from several countries, including Canada, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Palestine, Lebanon and Israel. With the help of research assistants, she has conducted more than 70 fieldwork interviews with Jewish and Muslim women who want to end their religious marriages but whose husbands will not give their consent. Professor Fournier is interested in what goes on behind closed doors in the corridors of religious power, as women try various methods to obtain a divorce, sometimes having to navigate both civil and religious law to keep custody of their children.

Delving into such sensitive issues is full of challenges, explains Professor Fournier, who also holds the Research Chair in Legal Pluralism and Comparative Law. “At first, women are reserved, and they have reason to be. Who am I to pry into their private lives?” she says. To win their trust, she hires female assistants who speak the same language and share the same religion as their interviewees.

Despite the cultural and religious differences among the women studied, Professor Fournier’s research shows that “women who value religion in their lives don’t want to turn their backs on their communities, even when faced with discrimination. What’s important to them is making justice more accessible, less expensive and more in tune with the situations and circumstances they are in.”

Professor Fournier’s work has not failed to attract the attention of the legal world, both here and abroad. In 2013, the United Nations invited her to present her findings in Lebanon, where the government is considering adopting a family mediation bill (at present, only religious family law is in place). She has also intervened as an expert witness on the application of Islamic law and its effects on women in five trials in Canada and two in the United States.

"I get a lot of pleasure out of contributing to people’s lives in a concrete and positive way,” she says. “Making a difference in the daily life of a marginalized woman who is wrestling with the intricacies of religious and state law, for example, brings me closer to my vision of justice. If the law can’t properly meet the needs of citizens, then we must have the courage to reform it. That’s what I keep hearing in the field.”

She will be able to continue developing in this role as part-time Commissioner at the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse. Named by the Legislative Assembly of Quebec in April 2015, Professor Fournier will apply her expertise in human rights to cases involving discrimination and respect for children’s rights, a cause that this mom of three young boys holds dear.

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