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‘Great privilege’ to be a family law prof

|Written By Gretchen Drummie

Nicholas Bala went to law school at Queen’s University in 1974 with a “firm intention” to practise. Thirty-five years later - he’s still there . . . teaching.

Queen’s University law professor Nicholas Bala has ‘tremendous respect’ for lawyers.

“When I graduated I thought I was never coming back, but the reality was I was almost never going to leave,” Bala tells Law Times in an interview.

Indeed, but while it has been more than three decades since choosing the alternate path, Bala has made his mark on the law and countless students of the profession.

And, while it probably wasn’t planned to mark the 35th anniversary, it can reasonably be said this is the year of Nicholas Bala. The well-respected Queen’s University Faculty of Law family law professor is raking in the hardware, starting earlier this month with the 2009 Ontario Bar Association Award for Excellence in Family Law and in September he’ll be presented with the Law Society Medal for his outstanding service.

“I’m thrilled and deeply honored,” Bala says about the OBA award. “I particularly respect the family law bar, which is a very dedicated, sometimes underappreciated, segment of the bar where there’s a lot of collegiality.”

“Throughout his legal career Professor Bala has been a leader in teaching and advancing family law in our province and across North America,” says Tom Dart, chairman of the OBA’s Family Law Section. “His contributions to the body of law, legal education, and his community are truly remarkable.”

Dan Goldberg of the Office of the Children’s Lawyer, and Philip Epstein, a partner at Epstein Cole LLP nominated Bala for both awards.

“I’m very grateful,” Bala says.

“Professor Bala is Canada’s leading academic and has made very important contributions to family law,” Epstein tells Law Times. “He has taken a keen interest in children’s issues and has contributed countless hours to legal education.

He exemplifies the kind of person for whom the Law Society Medal was created.”

Bala says he’s “also deeply honoured to receive the Law Society Medal. It is wonderful recognition for myself as well as for the importance of the contributions of family law scholars to the profession.”

In 2006 Bala won the Queen’s University Prize for Excellence in Research and was awarded the Stanley Cohen Distinguished Research Award by the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts in 2008.

Bala, 57, was born and raised in Montreal, went to the University of Toronto for an undergraduate degree, and from 1974 to 1977 studied law at Queen’s. He articled at the Ottawa law firm then called Burke-Robertson Chadwick and Ritchie, when fate stepped in. “I was actually sent down to Kingston by my firm to see a client who was in the pen.

“Then I stopped at the law school and they just had someone quit and so the dean hired me for a one-year contract” as assistant adjunct professor in the legal aid clinic. He went on to collect his LLM at Harvard University, and returned to Queen’s as a professor the same year. He has been at Queen’s since then, including serving five years as Associate Dean.

He was also a visiting professor at McGill, Duke and the University of Calgary.  Since 2006, Bala has also been the academic director of the Osgoode Hall Law School part-time family law LLM program.

While the main area of his teaching and research interest is family and children’s law, Bala has taught a range of other subjects including civil procedure and contract law.

But this teaching business wasn’t Bala’s original vision, especially while he was a student himself. “I always at that point saw myself as a lawyer but I spent a lot of time with helping my classmates.” In fact, Bala made a name for himself with his “Nicky Notes.”

He explains that “law students have been handing around their notes for millennia, and at the time notes were handwritten so you knew whose you really had unlike today where students get canned notes on a memory stick . . . I was quite famous for Nicky Notes, and a number of my classmates I still remember said, ‘Well you’d be a great professor,’ and I said, ‘No, I’m not going to be a professor, I’m going to be a lawyer.’”

Having said that, Bala did ultimately follow his classmates’ advice, and now admits he feels “very fortunate to be a professor; to me it’s been a really good fit. I also very much of course respect what lawyers and judges do.”

Bala should know - the teaching, continuing education work, with both lawyers and judges, and his research has been closely tied to the work of the bar and bench. A great deal of it has been interdisciplinary, in other words involves observing what’s going on in the courts or dealing with lawyers.

He has also undertaken collaborative projects with psychologists, social workers, criminologists, and health professionals.

Although some of his research has been theoretical and doctrinal, “I’ve also done a lot of applied research, so I’ve spent a lot of time working with, talking to, studying, debating, interacting with lawyers and judges, psychologists, and probation officers.”

Bala has also done a fair amount of traditional legal scholarship, and his work has been cited extensively by the courts and used in various educational programs. In fact, Bala has been cited by all levels of courts in this country, including the Supreme Court of Canada and courts of appeal in several provinces.

He confides, “I get a thrill every time the Supreme Court cites me, even in fact if anybody cites me. I’m just sitting there reading a judgment and I’ll think, ‘I know about that,’ and all of a sudden in the middle the judge quotes me, and I’m thrilled. I’ve had an impact on the real world . . . That’s nice.”

An expert on family and children’s law, Bala’s research focuses on issues related to parental rights and responsibilities after divorce, child witnesses and child abuse, spousal abuse and its effects on children, young offenders, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

He has also published extensively in journals in law, psychology, social work, and medicine, and written or co-authored 14 books, and 130 articles and book chapters. His fifteenth book, the second edition of Youth Criminal Justice Law will be published this summer.

Bala has worked with the National Judicial Institute on planning and delivering education programs for judges on subjects including child witnesses, domestic violence, support obligations, and young offenders.

He tells Law Times that for both judges and lawyers there’s growing recognition that “we are lifelong learners and that it’s increasingly important of course. . . . The law is now so complex and so much of the law, particularly family law, requires interdisciplinary knowledge that I think any good lawyer has to go on to be educated, and of course there are a range of formats in which that can be done.”

Looking back over his career, Bala says family law has experienced “dramatic and profound change.” He notes that in the contracts courses, “half the cases that I teach in 2009 are ones that I studied in 1974. In family law there’s virtually nothing that I studied as a student that I would look at today.”

He says “one of the realities is that both in the academy and in the profession, family lawyers, family judges, and I should say even family scholars, are sometimes viewed as being at the bottom of the professional pyramid. I think that’s very unfortunate, but it is sometimes a perception. . . . Nevertheless I think it’s an area of huge social importance.”

Bala says “the family lawyers and judges, the mental health professionals and probation officers are tremendously dedicated, skilled, knowledgeable, sophisticated people.”

The professor has  “respect for people who practise law, and as I indicated I think [through] much of my research and some of the continuing education, I’ve probably come into contact with lawyers and judges more than many of my colleagues in the academy, and I treasure that. But I also very much enjoy being a law professor.”

He notes that some would imagine, “This is great, you have four months off,” but the reality is that law professors as a group “certainly work hard,” and some may “underestimate how much time and energy goes into class preparation, individual meeting of the students, doing research. But it is also a great privilege to be a professor and I appreciate that.”

He says it’s also neat to see former students achieve success.

In fact, one of his “greatest pleasures is going to alumni events and meeting people who were my students five, or 10, or 20, 25 years ago and hearing about what they have done,” he says. “Some of them are very successful lawyers, some of them are members of the bench.

I remember how thrilled I was when I read the first judgment written by one of my students. And people are very generous and say, ‘Oh, I remember you as a professor, and you were such a big influence.’”

Bala says while he was interested in family law even as a student, he also had his eye on young offenders. He sees it as a “very important area of law, and it’s socially important. There certainly are other people writing in the area, I don’t want to say I’m the only one, but it’s an area that is under-represented in the academy.”

He also works as a volunteer with young offenders in Kingston, Ont., where he lives.

Bala enjoys teaching first-year contract students. “And in some ways without wishing to be drawing invidious comparison between students, I find the students in first year are particularly enthusiastic, open, engaged, and willing to engage in class discussion in a way that sometimes one doesn’t find in upper years.”

But he quickly adds “one of the nice things about family law is that it is actually an area where it’s relatively easy even in upper years to get people to engage because everybody has experiences and views about family law cases.”

He says one of the big changes he’s noticed in law schools in general is that “students are more professionally focused now than they were in the past . . . It is certainly a more intense experience now being a law student than it was 35 years ago.”

Bala says he’s had “many wonderful moments with students.”

Meanwhile, Bala has been married to his wife Martha, for 29 years. They have four children: Emily, Katie, Andrew, and Elizabeth, aged 13 to 23.

And, despite a busy work schedule, Bala has time to spend with his family and pursue various athletics including soccer, hockey and cross- country skiing.

“I really enjoy getting outside. One of the nice things about being a professor, although I feel I work pretty hard, I know I have a lot more control over my time, so if it’s sunny outside at noon I’m going to go out and jog or play soccer in a way that if even if I was a judge I wouldn’t have that freedom,” he says.

Bala’s wife, a family doctor who taught in the Queen’s family medicine department, has recently retired, but it doesn’t sound like he’s joining her any time soon.

“Why am I still working? I love what I do and you know one of the things I think, and this is why it’s been such a great privilege, is that it’s both responsible work, but it’s a very generalized kind of responsibility.”

BIG CHANGES

There’s no one better to ask about the most significant changes in family law over the past three decades than Queen’s University law professor Nicholas Bala.

So Law Times put the question to him. And Bala, who teaches in the areas of family, children’s, and contract law, didn’t hesitate with an answer: the definition of the family.

“Because the issues in this area profoundly affect people’s lives, there is a continuing social and political interest,” says Bala. “One of the changes that we’ve seen in the last 35 years is enormous change in the definition of the family, what are significant familial relationships.”

Bala, 57, says when he went to law school, those unmarried and cohabitating “didn’t have any rights at all.” Now, there’s also same-sex marriage, the rights and responsibilities of step-parents, issues around the definition of family in terms of artificial technology and reproduction, and most recently the controversy about polygamy.

“So the change in the definition of family is a huge issue,” says Bala.

He identifies another change in “the recognition of the importance of gender equality, and resulting changes to our property and support laws.”

Bala says other changes have happened in the area of “family law dispute resolution, recognizing the importance of trying to resolve cases outside of the formal court system, collaborative family law, mediation, and arbitration.

“Recognition of the need to have a range of responses to family law cases;   most can be settled but  some cases are high conflict and require judicial involvement, and some involve domestic violence and require special and different processes.”

Bala adds that, “We need different forms of dispute resolu-tion for different kinds of cases; even in regard to domestic violence, we need to recognize that it is important but it’s not just one phenomena it’s a range of related phenomenas.

You can’t have a simplistic monolithic analyses of family cases. You have to recognize the variety of cases and have a range of responses.”

  • Chair, Children Visiting Prisons-Kingston Inc.

    Joyce Waddell-Townsend
    I have always appreciated Professor Bala's willingness to participate in gatherings that focus on the needs of children with a parent in prison. He always has something profound and pertinent to contribute.

    I'm very pleased that he is receiving recognition.
  • A very deserving award recipient

    Gene C. Colman
    The article about Prof. Nick Bala accurately reflects this man's commitment to the greater good of society. While we are truly privileged in Ontario to have so many committed academics and lawyers who devote themselves whole heartedly to family law, I can think of no other person who so clearly merits the 2009 Ontario Bar Association Award for Excellence in Family Law. Congratulations, Nick. You are inspiration to us all.
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