School of Graduate Studies

School of Graduate Studies
School of Graduate Studies

Jane Thomson

PhD candidate in Law

Jane Thomson

Vanier Scholar

By Anthony Pugh, June 2016

“I have always been interested in legal reform”, says Jane Thomson, a PhD student in Law and a 2016 recipient of a prestigious Vanier Scholarship. Previously a family lawyer in Toronto and Ottawa, her research at Queen’s now focuses on how to affect progressive legal reform using private law doctrines. This kind of change is more commonly achieved through the application of public law legislation, such as human rights legislation or the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“This is an important research topic as it is often understudied and overlooked by many aspiring young legal professionals seeking to make a positive impact in the area of legal reform,” she says. It is also highly topical as it is a subject with which Canadian courts have recently being grappling. “Two recent lower court decisions have attempted to address the issue of testators using their wills to perpetuate their own personal brand of racism after their deaths. These judgments have resulted in opposite opinions concerning what use, if any, a court may make of the common law doctrine of public policy to void a provision in a will that seeks to discriminate against a beneficiary based on race, or promotes racism in some other way.”

In both these cases, parties have sought leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada. “If leave is granted, it will be very interesting to see how the Court decides this issue,” says Thomson. “It requires a balancing of testamentary freedom against the notion that there is little support in modern day Canadian society for legally condoned racism or similar forms of discrimination.”

This work builds on Thomson’s previous research experience. She had already completed a Master of Laws at Harvard, where she looked at how the success of Charter-based equality claimants was influenced by courts viewing marriage as either a contract or a status. “I was greatly influenced by the Critical Legal Theorist scholars while at Harvard who demonstrated to me how seemingly less political areas of the law such as property, trusts or estates can be very political - not to mention powerful tools for progressive change. I view my current work as a fresh and exciting area to study.”

After broadening her research topic to better engage with these theoretical issues, Thomson is working under the supervision of Professor Christopher Essert. “When I decided to pursue the broader topic of private law theory I was very happy that Essert agreed to supervise me as he is an emerging scholar in this area and very supportive. Queen's Faculty of Law in general is an amazing place with wonderful professors, many great resources and helpful staff.”

On receiving a Vanier scholarship, Thomson notes that “it is of course a huge honor but it is also very helpful financially. As of July I will be a parent to two children under the age of two. Juggling a young family while pursuing a Ph.D. can be very challenging but support from the Vanier program is an incredible help in this regard.”

Outside of her research, Thomson teaches part-time at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law where she currently lives with her young family.

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