Behind the Book with Christopher Moore

9781442650145Christopher Moore is the author of The Court of Appeal for Ontario: Defining the Right of Appeal 1792-2013, recently published by University of Toronto Press and the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History.

How did you become involved in your area of research?
I am a historian by training, but I have always worked as a self-employed, trade-market book writer. I cover Canadian history very widely , but I had never done anything related to legal history until I got a call from an editor in 1994. The Law Society of Upper Canada wanted its history written; would I be interested? I heard later they had approached some leading legal scholars who said it would take ten years and cost a million bucks. I agreed I could do it a bit faster, on a smaller budget.

University of Toronto Press published The Law Society of Upper Canada and Ontario's Lawyers in 1997. In the years since then, many details I could only allude to in that survey have been picked up and explored in detail in articles and even dissertations, which has been satisfying.

And the Law Society liked what it got. Since then I have continued to practise legal history as a sort of "minor." From time to time I get a chance to do a legal history research project, and usually I jump at it.

What inspired you to write this book?
The best kind of inspiration: a call out of the blue. While Warren Winkler was chief justice of Ontario, he decided a history of his court, the court of appeal, would be one of the legacy projects of his term in office. With the help of the Law Foundation of Ontario and the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History, he got the project launched. And they thought I could help them with it.

How did you become interested in the subject?
I'm a working historian with my shingle out. If people want me to work on a historical subject that is important to them, chances are I am going to be interested.

How long did it take you to write your latest book?
A couple of years. Given Chief Justice Winkler's role in launching this project (see above), we wanted to wrap it up around the time of his retirement and publish it not too long after. He retired in December 2013, and that made a useful terminus date for the history. A deadline does help focus the mind.

For a long time, the administrative files of courts were whatever a chief justice kept in his bottom left hand desk drawer - and threw away when he retired, usually. Pulling together sources for the evolution of courts is a nice historical challenge, because except for recent years they tend to be scattered and incomplete.

What do you find most interesting about your area of research?
My own legal histories have been institutional, but I hope they help lay down a framework and suggest questions for more theoretical analyses by specialists. And I do work hard at making legal history readable and accessible to busy lawyers and judges and other interested non-academics.

Legal history is a rich and fruitful field for any historian. Coming to it late, without any legal training, I discovered lawyers and legal historians get involved in a little of everything: crime, politics, business, property, family, but in a focused and manageable way. Legal history has a firm spine in statutes and cases and legal institutions, but it offers a window on a great range of human experience. Given the turn away from political, constitutional, institutional history by historians, legal historians have re-invigorated that whole area with a lot of fresh perspectives. Legal sources can also open up a whole range of social history subjects, too: gender history, labour studies, lots else.

What do you wish other people knew about your area of research?
There is a lot of terrific work being done in Canadian legal history, by historians and by lawyers - and opportunities for publication too. The Osgoode Society has such a successful publishing program - with UTP mostly -- because it is supported by many lawyers who take their profession and its history seriously, and because it sets high standards and supports good scholars from many fields of study.

What's the most surprising thing you discovered during the course of your research?
As a freelance writer, I don't get to have researchers much. But for this project, support from the Law Foundation of Ontario let us hire a bunch of students to research in the case law of the Court of Appeal. I should not have been surprised, but I found out again: there are a lot of bright, dedicated, passionate, well-organized young people out there. I hope we find ways to keep them busy.

Do you have to travel much concerning the research/writing of your book?
Just from my home to Osgoode Hall in downtown Toronto, where they were good enough to find me a little work space in that remarkable building for a couple of years.

What was the hardest part of writing your book?
Writing is always the hard part. Writing is the only really hard thing I seem to be any good at.

Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?

The right of appeal seems to be one of those unchanging thousand-year old fundamentals of justice. In fact, it is a very historically-contingent thing - as historians might expect, but it sometimes surprises lawyers. Well into the 20th century one could be sentenced to death in Canada with no right of appeal whatsoever. My subtitle "defining the right of appeal" was a late choice, but it speaks to something I found myself pursuing all through this project.

What are your current/future projects?
In 2015 Penguin Canada is going to publish my Three Weeks in Quebec City, about the making of the Canadian constitution at Quebec City in 1864. It is part of their History of Canada series, edited by Robert Bothwell and Margaret MacMillan. And Canada's History will need a column soon. And I keep up my history blog .

What do you like to read for pleasure? What are you currently reading?

I just read Ian McEwan's short novel The Children Act. I was not thinking of it as legal history, but he does explore how judges think and the moral seriousness that judging engages. Judges I have met are pretty impressive people, by and large.

What is your favourite book?

Years ago someone told me about Montaillou, Emmanuel LeRoy Ladurie's extraordinary total history of a village in the Pyrenees in the late 1200s. I found a copy and read the whole long, detailed, challenging thing very slowly in French. When I finished it, I thought I was the only person in North America who knew this amazing book. A week later Time magazine reviewed the English translation. But for me it remains one of the great inspirational histories.

It's legal history of a kind, come to think of it: it is based on the Inquisition records from when they interrogated the whole village on heresy charges.

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