Celebrating a Century of Canadian Military Legal Services

Members of the Canadian Military Legal Branch gather in Ottawa early March 2018.

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If they were with us today, the founding members of Canada’s Military Legal Branch might be forgiven for not recognizing the institution they established one hundred years ago. In terms of the scope of responsibilities, structure, and membership – so much has changed.

What has remained constant and relevant 100 years on, is the Branch mandate to provide services to ensure that military action is legal and that the current law can meet the unique needs of the military. In other words, Canada’s Military Legal Branch exists to enable the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) to operate effectively in accordance with domestic and international law, while ensuring that the Department of National Defence and the CAF can manage and mitigate legal risks.

During the first several decades of its existence, this largely meant advising and reviewing courts martial. After the Second World War, the Branch moved on to cover criminal war trials and then continued to expand its scope to serve the evolving legal needs of the military.

Over time, the Branch has applied the necessary legal agility to align with societal norms while responding to the judicial needs of the military. This has included the requirement to address the legal impact that came with the introduction of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to respond to the demand for stronger individual and victims’ rights, and to adapt to the prevalent use of international agreements to regulate state action.

Today, approximately 180 members of the Military Legal Branch support the Canadian Armed Forces as members of the Office of the Judge Advocate General (JAG). Under the leadership of the Judge Advocate General, Commodore Geneviève Bernatchez, these members work as legal advisors in the areas of operational law, military justice, and military administrative law. Their files address law, at home or abroad, for operations on land, at sea, in the air, and even in outer space or cyberspace; for all aspects of military judicial processes such as the presumption of innocence, search, seizure, arrest and detention; and for all personnel-related matters from recruitment to release and beyond.  This requires in-depth knowledge, agility and personal stamina to be able to maneuver through an environment of shifting global allegiances, borderless conflicts, natural disasters, evolving societal demands, pervasive communications, and rapid technological advancements.

One hundred years of dedicated military legal service for Canada deserves to be celebrated. A Gala was held in Ottawa, early March, to kick-off the centennial festivities. In July, a contingent from the Office of the JAG will participate in the International Four Days Marches Nijmegen, (annual marches to highlight Canada’s role in the liberation of the Netherlands). A Royal Banner designated for the Branch will be unveiled later this year and further community outreach events will continue to roll-out across Canada.

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Fast Facts

  • Canada’s military justice system is unique and forms part of Canada’s legal mosaic.
  • The Office of the JAG is mandated to provide independent legal advice.
  • Legal officers have varied backgrounds as they may have prior military or civilian legal experience. They are all law school graduates and members of a Canadian provincial Law Society.
  • The Legal Branch March is Hymn to Freedom, by Oscar Peterson.
  • The Legal Branch Motto is “Fiat Justitia” (Let Justice Prevail)
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