Providing the tools to engage: Professor Carissima Mathen receives 2018 Law Society Medal
Professor Carissima Mathen: Called to the Bar in 1994, Carissima Mathen has championed women’s equality rights, respect for the rule of law and public legal education throughout her career. From her work on ground breaking sexual violence cases, to her constitutional scholarship, she is one of Canada’s leading legal voices.
Professor Mathen’s research has provided crucial insight into topics relating to the Constitution; and to the underlying commitments and principles of a just society. She is deeply committed to making law accessible to everyone, devoting tremendous time and energy to public commentary. She is an innovator in the dissemination of legal information, influencing decision-makers at all levels. Through her research, commitment to the public interest, and contributions to public legal education, she has contributed extensively to preserving the integrity of the legal profession, Canada’s democratic institutions and the rule of law.
What does this award mean to you?
“It’s thrilling and almost surreal. Peer recognition is important and precious. The Medal provides incredible affirmation of my efforts to promote the values that I believe inform and support the law and legal profession. They include: mutual respect and regard, even in the face of firm disagreement; equality and concern for the marginalized; and giving people the tools to engage with complex issues in a reasoned and informed way.”
Professor Mathen wanted to study law long before she truly appreciated what that meant and was attracted to it as an intellectual pursuit. During her studies at Osgoode Hall Law School, she developed a keen interest in constitutional law. After graduation, she was lucky enough to parlay a short contract into a seven-year position at the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund, a position, which provided her with unparalleled experience in feminist, public interest advocacy.
When asked what she is most passionate about, Prof. Mathen explains that she is committed to advancing and gaining knowledge. She considers teaching law to be a calling. “You are entrusted with the professional training of one of the most powerful of all social groups. I especially love explaining complex issues – rights disputes, division of powers, the judiciary – in a way that makes sense to those without legal training and that enables them to engage in public discourse and debate. I am also passionate about writing in both academic and popular forums.”
The biggest achievement in her career was her work on Supreme Court appointments — both in terms of interpreting the Supreme Court Act, and assisting the federal government in re-fashioning the selection process for judges.
Professor Mathen says there are incredible gains to be made using technology, to increase access to legal services. At the same time, legal training continues to be out of reach to many; gaining entry to the profession is a source of great stress to law students; and legal services are often prohibitively expensive. These are daunting challenges. But she’s always inspired by the creativity, diversity and boundless ideas of colleagues, as well as the many lawyers that she meets. “Today’s law school students are truly impressive and they help me to maintain an optimistic outlook.”
“The best way to honour this award,” Professor Mathen explains, “is to keep doing the things I am doing, specifically in public education and commentary. It’s incredibly meaningful for me to celebrate this moment with my family, especially my father. My mother, a brilliant and ground-breaking scholar, was afflicted with Alzheimer’s some years ago. It’s painful to be unable to share this achievement with her in the same way – but I believe that deep down, she knows.”
The Law Society Medal was established in 1985 as an honour to be awarded by the Law Society of Upper Canada to lawyers who have made significant contributions to the profession. Award recipients are chosen for their outstanding service within the profession, whether in the area of practice or in the academic sphere, or in some other professional capacity — either through devotion to professional duties over a long-term, or for a single outstanding act of service.
This year, 10 exceptional members of the legal professions will be honoured with Law Society awards at a ceremony on May 23rd.