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Chapter 6: The Law School’s Mission

Let Justice Be Done

FIAT JUSTITIA, RUAT COELUM. "Let justice be done though the heavens fall"—these words were powerfully invoked by Lord Mansfield in 1772 as he freed the slave whose fate was at issue in Sommersett’s case.

Nearly two centuries later, these same words were deliberately selected to serve as the motto of the University of British Columbia Faculty of Law. Today they grace the main entrance of the law building. Ignored, rarely understood, perhaps not even noticed as students and faculty pass below, this motto nonetheless reflects much of the spirit with which the first university law faculty was established in British Columbia.

The motto was selected by the faculty’s founding dean, George Curtis, as his own "spontaneous and personal choice", but considerable thought went into its selection. Intended to simultaneously lay hold to ancient wisdom, encapsulate the indispensable essence of common law, and powerfully, authoritatively invoke a vision of the future, these four Latin words carry a heavy burden. Since Sommersett’s case, they have migrated through two centuries, across an ocean, and over a continent, absorbing meaning at each stage of their migration.

The University of British Columbia law faculty coat of arms, granted by the Chief Herald of Canada on October 1, 1992, reproduce the law school motto: Fiat justitia, ruat coelum (let justice be done though the heavens fall).

The historical essence that the motto encapsulates was explained by Dean George Curtis during a 1995 interview. The immediate origins of the motto are found in 1951 when a new building was constructed for the University of British Columbia Faculty of Law. It was "the first law building built for a law school and occupied by a law school" in Canada. Although its architectural style emphasized unadorned facades and simple, straight lines, Dean Curtis thought the new building needed at least modest embellishment. It should, he thought, carry an appropriate motto over its entrance. The dean recalled to an interviewer that his "mind went back to a magical hour when I was a student in the Law School in Saskatchewan":

We had a remarkable teacher, Dean Moxon, Arthur Moxon, a superb teacher, I’ve not heard a better law teacher, I’ve heard many since of course. A man of learning, graduate of Dalhousie in Classics, of Oxford in Law. And what he was talking to us about was a favourite subject of his, namely that the common law was freighted with a cargo of human freedom. That’s putting it a little poetically, but anything he did was eloquent. And he held us in thrall while he talked about the history of personal freedom under the common law, Bracton, Coke, onto the last bit, which was Mansfield. Mansfield’s subject was Sommersett’s case where he released the slave [and] said that the air of England does not tolerate slavery. And Moxon read from the closing words in that judgment in Sommersett’s case . . . and he used as a flourish . . . he quoted from the judgment the Latin motto "Fiat justitia, ruat coelum", and it thrilled us. "Let justice be done though the heavens fall". Well, I remembered that, all through the years, and so I thought what could be better to express the spirit with which this law school, I hoped, would be imbued.

So the motto reflects a joyous satisfaction with the historical achievements associated with the elimination of slavery and with the progress of individual liberty. It speaks also to a general, optimistic, if somewhat abstract, aspiration that the common law can and should be "freighted with a cargo of human freedom".

A monopoly has been entrusted to a certain group of people such as the legal profession, the only ones that are entitled to do certain things with respect to matters that the public are so much concerned with. It’s a monopoly that must be exercised with an eye upon filling that particular need and doing what the legislature thought they could safely entrust them to look after. Now . . . unless that responsibility is lived up to and performed to the satisfaction of the public—a reasonable satisfaction of the public—there is going to be a protest and the legislature which gave this monopoly to a certain group of people in a certain profession, they can turn around tomorrow and take it from them. These are the things that should be kept in mind. Now that is the philosophy; that’s what I expressed on many occasions.
—Judge James Moses Coady, 1979

Its spirit of optimism and commitment to the creation of a just society is not derived solely from eighteenth century England, however. Dean Curtis’s explanation hints at origins in an environment of hope, idealism, and utopian aspiration a good deal closer to home. In Arthur Moxon’s classroom, the words absorbed meaning from Saskatchewan’s political culture. Many of the Europeans who had migrated to Prairie Canada at the time thought themselves to be advancing an historically important mission. They chose to view themselves as hard-working, virtuous peoples who were "opening up" a new, very special territory: "a new civilization was being planted on the Prairies. The figure that a good many politicians used, when they made their speeches, was ‘A New Jerusalem’, let’s create a ‘new Jerusalem.’ " The Prairie ethos was imbibed to its fullest by the young George Curtis. He detected a powerful sense of community superimposed on a tremendously diverse population made up of people from many different ethnic origins, languages, and religions. Many affirmed a deeply held faith in those values of "personal freedom" that "today we call human rights".

Political philosophers, social theorists, and contemporary legal scholars alike are inclined to see a powerful contradiction between "freedom" and "social justice". Ideas that motivate and sustain claims to "personal freedom" or "individual rights" are often thought of as inherently opposed to ideologies and beliefs that might support the collective measures which proactively advance political community, social justice, and the protection of the public welfare. No such dichotomy informs the spirit behind the motto of the University of British Columbia law faculty. It invokes "justice" in its most rounded sense, incorporating each of procedural, substantive, and social justice to their fullest. Again, early twentieth century Saskatchewan’s cultural ethos provides an interpretative touchstone. Dean Curtis explained:

It’s perfectly true, that this desire for freedom was the marked characteristic of the people who went out and settled the Prairies. But at the same time there was the counter of that, what I called the "balancing factor". . . . the sense of neighbourhood, you couldn’t live on the Prairies without being very conscious of the fact that you helped each other. Community helping, you see! Everybody helping, because you had to, had to. It was a society that wasn’t wealthy, and so people had to help each other. And so it was a wonderful feeling. There’s your contradiction. I don’t regard it as a contradiction, I think its a balancing act, and I think we’re all the stronger for having these things balanced out. And that was the foundation for much of the political thinking on the Prairies.

This political culture tolerated a good deal of individual autonomy but also nurtured the development of medicare and other social programmes directed to the well-being of the community as a whole. Two "freedoms" were of central importance in establishing the groundwork for this "just" society. First, it was essential to avoid "the class divisions in Europe" so as to ensure a "freedom of the talents". Second, freedom required that ways be found to escape "elements of authoritarianism in government, which is always present, remember".

Fiat justitia, ruat coelum invokes memories, then, both of the historical achievement of individual liberty under English common law and of the optimistic embrace of community-oriented political and social values by diverse European settlers in the early Prairie provinces. The need to ensure freedom from authoritarianism in government raises a third, less pleasant, range of considerations that informed Dean Curtis’s choice. The motto has a dark side, for its most recent history speaks not only to hope and achievement but also to the need for great vigilance in the face of evil. The words hint at fell circumstances and are impressed with the quite specific, pressing concerns of the mid-twentieth century. This was a time when the heavens, indeed, seemed to fall. Infused with hopefulness, optimism, and idealistic aspirations, the motto simultaneously serves as talisman against the multiple evils our century has produced. It is a reminder of the hell-on-earth we have created whenever vigilance has waned.

The generation of Canadians who founded the University of British Columbia Faculty of Law lived through the Boer War, the First World War (the "war to end all wars"), the Bolshevik revolution, the Great Depression, the Second World War and its Holocaust, and the deliberate nuclear destruction of civilian populations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Something better had to be possible, and many thinking individuals hoped that law would have a central role in fashioning a new, better world. Wendell Farris, then Chief Justice for British Columbia, expressed this idea well in a 1946 address when he said that "[i]t is essential that . . . lawyers and those . . . who are to become lawyers must realize that only through the law and the lawyers can peace prevail throughout the world". Such ideas pressed on the mind of Dean Curtis when he came to select a motto, a few short words, to encapsulate the spirit of his new faculty.

The immediate background in 1951 was the "veterans’ era". Founded in 1945, the law school was largely populated in its first years by returning war veterans. Unspeakable horrors were very real. This generation knew that the danger of authoritarianism "is always present. . . . God help it, power corrupts, we know that from Acton, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. . . . that’s the thread that runs through all of European history. . . . It’s there, it’s there, it’s latent most of the time, but suddenly it breaks out as it did in Nazi Germany, as . . . it broke out in Fascism in Italy". The student veterans, Dean Curtis recalls, "risked their lives, many of their friends had lost their lives in the cause of freedom," in order to:

get rid of that dreadful business which was shown by the cruelty, the inhumanity which unfortunately had gripped the German nation under the Nazis and it expressed itself in the Holocaust. There it was. That’s what these fellows went overseas to stop, and they did, they won the war. And they came back, and why not in peace time keep that thought alive "Let Justice Be Done Though The Heavens Fall". There it is, that’s the motto! I got a little excited over this, I’m afraid because it is an excitable subject. It deserves the full extent of our being . . . has to be in this, . . . but that’s what I think is the spirit which this law school wanted to express in that motto and wanted to keep to reinforce. . . . Law is much more than just a bunch of rules. Law represents an important part of a nation’s culture, it expresses values, it has a normative effect on society. It should, at least. And that’s what I wanted to encourage.

All that was worthy in the nation’s culture, values, and law were, for Curtis, in all respects the antithesis of Nazism. The democratic tradition, community spirit, respect for individual rights, and "a great sense of tolerance" for human diversity together constituted the sense of "justice" to which the new law school was dedicated.

Chapter 6 continued

Copyright 1995 The University of British Columbia Faculty of Law. All rights reserved.
Please address questions or comments to Professor W. Wesley Pue, pue@law.ubc.ca