“Public Law: Rights, Duties and Power”: a conference placing the Public Law Centre at the heart of research on public law

Faculty of Law - Common Law Section
Research centres and institutes

By Karine Fossou

Research Communications Specialist, University of Ottawa

Canada's Parliament Hill
For the first time ever, the prestigious Public Law Conference is being hosted in North America, namely from July 2 to July 5, 2024, at the University of Ottawa, an academic hub renowned for the study of public law.

Public law governs relations between individuals and society, and so this international event focuses on the public domains that it encompasses, such as constitutional law and administrative law, but also criminal law, Indigenous legal traditions, and immigration and refugee law.

Jointly organized by the Public Law Centre (PLC) at the University of Ottawa and the Faculty of Law of the University of Melbourne, this conference  investigates issues of public law from the perspective of citizens’ rights, the duties of the State, and how governments assign and exercise power. Over 200 representatives from legal communities around the world are gathered in Canada’s federal capital to share their varied perspectives on contemporary issues related to these questions.

Prof. Vanessa MacDonnell
Professor Vanessa MacDonnell

“We are exploring the ways in which the conceptual foundations of public law can be used to respond to the issues and challenges emerging in modern states”

Co-director of the Public Law Centre


This conference provides uOttawa researchers with opportunities to lead and participate in discussions on topics as varied as those involving national security, separation of powers, citizenship and judicial review. Topics that are particularly relevant in Canada.

“We are exploring the ways in which the conceptual foundations of public law can be used to respond to the issues and challenges emerging in modern states, such as threats to democracy and the digitization of the State, topics that legal experts have not yet studied in depth,” said Professor Vanessa MacDonnell, the PLC co-director who is co-organizing the conference along with Professor Michael Pal, both affiliated with the Faculty of Law, Common Law Section at the University of Ottawa.

Collage of Hon. Sheilah L. Martin- uOttawa -  Logos of the organisers
Hon. Sheilah L. Martin - Pavillon Tabaret uOttawa

The participation of upper-level court judges from South Africa, Australia, Papua New Guinea and Canada, including Supreme Court of Canada Justice the Honourable Sheilah L. Martin, as well as renowned academics and legal experts from around the world, surely enhances uOttawa’s reputation as a leading centre for the study of public law.

Hosted by the Faculty of Law at the University of Ottawa, this forum, which boasts over 100 speakers, not only seeks to establish ties between legal practice and academia, and thus create trans-jurisdictional networks to better respond to the modern challenges our societies face, but also aims to enrich and highlight the emerging research that doctoral candidates will present during the event.

In line with previous conferences initially held at the University of Cambridge in 2014, and then at the University of Melbourne, Australia and more recently at the Sutherland School of Law, University College Dublin, this latest edition of the Public Law Conference, the tenth of its kind, is bound to showcase the Public Law Centre.

Collage Michael Pal Scale of justice
Michael Pal

“It’s a testament to its reputation as a leader in Canada on research, debates and engagement in public law that the Centre was chosen to co-organize this forum,” said Professor MacDonnell, an expert on the constitutional functions of the executive branch, inter-institutional relationships, unwritten constitutional norms and principles, and the relationship between Canada’s legal and political constitutions.

Under the leadership of Professor MacDonnell and Professor Sarah Berger Richardson, from the Faculty of Law Civil Law Section, the PLC boasts the largest number of university experts in public law in the country. Their areas of expertise range from constitutional law to Indigenous legal traditions, and include human rights, criminal law, and immigration and refugee law.

Created in 2019, the Centre is the product of collaboration between Dean Adam Dodek and Dean Céline Lévesque, and the Office of the Vice-President Research and Innovation. It aims to sustain the activities and ambitions of the Public Law Group, which was successively led by Adam Dodek (2015-2016), Carissima Mathen (2014-2015), Peter Oliver (2011-2014, 2015-2016) and Michael Pal (2016-2019).

For its part, the PLC, which has been successively headed by co-directors Peter Oliver, David Robitaille and Terry Skolnik, today boasts some 40 members, including Professor Marie-Eve Sylvestre, the current dean of the Faculty of Law, Civil Law Section at the University of Ottawa.

Peter Oliver, Terry Skolnik, David Robitaille, Vanessa MacDonnell, Sarah Berger Richardson
Peter Oliver, Terry Skolnik, David Robitaille, Vanessa MacDonnell, Sarah Berger Richardson

Members of the PLC are working on ambitious projects, such as one that analyzes the latest legal data to examine Supreme Court of Canada decisions, or the open-access publication of the first-ever “Handbook of Critical Public Law”, which looks at the evolution of the relationship between the State and society in light of movements for reconciliation and calls to recognize and remedy systemic racism in institutions.

Thanks to its talented members and its close ties to governments, to the courts and to multiple legal and administrative organizations, the Public Law Centre is increasingly playing an essential role in helping to shape the Canada of tomorrow.