Legal Officer: a ‘dynamic’ career experience

Article / January 19, 2017 / Project number: 16-0114

By Steven Fouchard, Army Public Affairs

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Ottawa, Ontario — While there is truth in the notion that being an effective soldier means thinking more collectively than individually, legal officers in the Canadian Armed Forces are effective in a highly independent role.

That, says Lieutenant-Colonel Marie-Ève Tremblay, Legal Advisor for the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM) in Ottawa, is part of what makes her job so interesting.

“In order to be successful at my job, I have to remain operationally focused and solution-oriented in order to ensure that the commander is aware of his or her legal responsibilities, which means proposing options that would meet their intent while ensuring that they also fully comply with applicable laws,” said LCol Tremblay.

Captain Francesca Ferguson, a legal officer currently posted to Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Borden in Ontario, said that level of independence is also a large part of what makes her work satisfying.

“I’m one of two lawyers for the base in Borden,” Capt Ferguson explained. “Even in Ottawa where we have many lawyers, they’re all working in small teams, very independently advising at high levels. It is great to work in an office where we’re trusted to manage interesting files and engage in strategic issues early in our careers.”

The seeds of LCol Tremblay’s career were planted during her eight years as an Army Cadet in her home community of Lac St-Jean, Quebec.

“That early experience in the Army Cadets really enlightened me about the military life and destroyed some myths that you often hear about military life – like the constant strict rules and the absence of latitude to use your imagination, which is really not the case at all.”

However, it was not until after she had left the Cadets to pursue a career in law that LCol Tremblay came to the realization that she could combine her twin professional passions and practice as a lawyer in uniform.

“I was in my apartment close to the University of Laval and I was looking on the Internet and I ended up looking at the Judge Advocate General (JAG) web page and I said, ‘This is exactly what I want to do,’” noted LCol Tremblay.

Capt Ferguson also felt international law was among the most fascinating areas of her law studies at her alma mater, Dalhousie University, and that the military is one of very few places offering opportunities to focus on it.

“International law is one of our primary fields of practice. We have the opportunity to deploy on military operations to advise on international and Canadian law applicable to Canadian Armed Forces operations,” Capt Ferguson explained. “While going through law school, I found that international law really attracted me, and I learned that while you can practice international law outside of the military, the military seemed to offer really dynamic and exciting opportunities.”

At her local recruiting centre, LCol Tremblay was told she would need to be fully licensed to practice law in Quebec before she could apply.

Upon being admitted to the Bar of Quebec, in August of 2004, LCol Tremblay was a new recruit. Quebec, unlike other provinces, allows students to study for a bachelor’s degree in law without the requirement of another undergraduate degree. As a result, LCol Tremblay was just 24 years old when she joined the Office of the JAG.

“I was really, really young when I joined and I believe it was an advantage to a certain extent,” she said. “I was the youngest member of the legal family for a number of years. And I was deployed really young as well so I had to build my credibility and show confidence. So that was a bit of a challenge for me personally, but I was grateful that the Office of the Judge Advocate General trusted me enough to promote me to Major and deploy me at an early age,” she said.

LCol Tremblay said those early deployments to Afghanistan in 2008 and to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2011 were rewarding experiences.

“In Afghanistan, I was working on building seminars for judges and for prosecutors and police officers on basic legal principles, for example. And when I was in Congo, I was working on a project to build prosecution cells. And those cells were meant to mentor military prosecutors in war crimes investigations. So that’s very exciting work. I think that’s the essence of why I joined: I wanted to make a difference in areas of the world affected by conflict,” explained LCol Tremblay.

Capt Ferguson transferred to the Regular Force in 2014 after nine years as a Reservist with 3 Intelligence Company in Halifax which, she noted, provided helpful income to support her undergraduate studies. While CFB Borden is physically a world away from Congo or Afghanistan, Capt Ferguson said it still offers stimulating challenges.

“We address whatever comes in the door, regardless of what type of legal issue it is. We advise on criminal law and the military justice system, which I love. We’re also dealing with a lot of administrative law and employment issues which impact the troops directly. I’m dealing with different issues every day and I have to be on the ball to be able to respond effectively,” Capt Ferguson concluded.

The responsibilities of a Legal Officer include:

  • Providing advice on international and domestic law to the commander of a deployed force;
  • Providing general legal advice and services to the commanding officer of a Canadian Armed Forces Base;
  • Providing advice on administrative law, operational law and military justice issues at National Defence Headquarters;
  • Representing clients at Court Martial and appearing before the Court Martial Appeal Court;
  • Representing the interests of the Forces and the Department of National Defence as a member of a Canadian delegation negotiating international treaties or as a member of the military liaison staff at an allied headquarters;
  • Delivering training on military law and military justice.

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