When asking the Honourable Justice Grant D. Burnyeat - past AMS President and UBC Alumni Association President, six-year member of UBC Senate, founding Director of the Allard Law Alumni Association, and former Chair of the Dean’s Reunion Advisory Committee for the Allard School of Law - what motivates him to remain so active in the law school and university community, he replies with a simple, “I guess I am a joiner.”
At a young age, Justice Burnyeat moved from Regina, Saskatchewan to Vancouver, British Columbia, where he would later establish his legal career and come to call home. Justice Burnyeat began his post-secondary education at the University of British Columbia in the 1962 where he studied Secondary Education and then Geography in the Faculty of Arts, with the idea of either pursuing a master’s degree or starting a career in town planning. However, after three years of undergraduate studies – studies which Justice Burnyeat equates to “a BA in Geography minus Spanish 200” – he took two gap years to live in New York before enrolling in the LLB program at the law school at UBC.
Justice Burnyeat recalls two law school trends that notably shifted when he began his first year in 1970. Firstly, students were no longer wearing blazers and ties to attend class and secondly, there was an appreciable increase in the number of women in his first year class compared to prior years. Whereas previous classes only had a handful of women, Justice Burnyeat recalls around 15 women in his first year class of 250 individuals. Justice Burnyeat describes a few of his favourite memories from law school as participating in the inaugural Trike Race alongside the class of 1972 and the pride his first year small group, Section 2, felt when they pelted George F. Curtis, their constitutional law professor and dean, with snowballs when he arrived late to class one morning. While Justice Burnyeat jokes that his class was “accomplished on the smaller things in life” during their first year of law school, he also notes that the graduating class of 1973 produced a record number of masters and justices on the BC Supreme Court and BC Court of Appeal. Notable alumni who graduated alongside Justice Burnyeat include the Honourable Justice Lynn Smith, QC, former Dean of the Allard School of Law (1991-1997) and Chief Judge Robert Metzger, former Chief Judge of the BC Provincial Court (1995-2000).
Since his first year of the LLB program in 1970, Justice Burnyeat has been extensively involved in the law school and greater UBC community as both a student and an alumnus. As the first year representative on the law students’ society for his small group, Section 2, Justice Burnyeat was introduced to student government. As vice president of the law students’ society, he would join UBC’s Alma Mater Society (AMS) as the representative for the law school student body. During his second year of law school, Justice Burnyeat instigated a coup when the AMS council, a left-leaning group which Justice Burnyeat recalls identifying itself as “human government,” asked students to propose a renewed mandate. When the student government was defeated by an overwhelming number of students who voted against them, Justice Burnyeat jumped at the opportunity to run for AMS president in the 1971-1972 by-election. Justice Burnyeat went on to be one of only two Allard School of Law students who successfully passed their respective years of law school while holding the position of AMS president, a feat which he credits to prioritizing his time and to the many generous classmates who were willing to share their notes with him.
As AMS president, Justice Burnyeat championed for the creation of an aquatic centre and the Pit Pub at UBC-Vancouver campus. He was adamant that the aquatic centre would be in close proximity to the Student Union Building and that it would be managed by students and alumni. Along with these stipulations, Justice Burnyeat proposed that students would be responsible for funding one third of the building cost. After graduating in 1973, Justice Burnyeat continued to participate in the fundraising and management of the complex. In 1978, the aquatic centre opened its doors, only to be closed again in 2017 to make way for a new facility, a decision lamented by Justice Burnyeat, a holder of one of six lifetime passes to the original aquatic centre.
After graduation, Justice Burnyeat practiced insolvency law at Davis & Company in Vancouver. While he was initially interested in litigation, Justice Burnyeat pursued insolvency law because it allowed him to present his ideas in front of a judge more frequently. Through his insolvency law practice, Justice Burnyeat was able to go to chambers at least once per week. This strongly contrasted to his time in litigation, where he found that only one in 100 of his files would actually make it to trial. In 1996, Justice Burnyeat joined the bench of the BC Supreme Court – a role which would allow him to experience another dimension of the courtroom.
As a justice of the BC Supreme Court for over 20 years, Justice Burnyeat has seen significant evolution within the legal field. Firstly, he remembers only a handful of environmental, civil liberties, and labour law courses being offered during his time in law school. Because it is dangerous to “assume the practice of law will continue to be the same a year from now or 10 years from now,” Justice Burnyeat recommends that law students take a broad range of coursework instead of focusing on a very niche area. Secondly, throughout his career, Justice Burnyeat has seen major legal strides towards equality and women’s rights in areas such as same-sex marriage and access to safe abortions. While he claims that others may criticize the judiciary of “social engineering”, he is very proud of legal profession’s continued ability to step forward.
However, there are many issues that Justice Burnyeat feels the legal profession has yet to adequately address. While there are drastically more women entering the legal profession compared to when he began law school in 1970, with an approximately equal balance of male and female individuals in a modern law school graduating class, Justice Burnyeat notes that the profession remains “front-end loaded.” He sees associates and new partners working very long hours, often to the detriment of their personal lives. He continues to see a shocking number of female lawyers drop-out of the profession and little adaptation by firms to try to combat this issue. Additionally, as the practice of law has evolved, Justice Burnyeat as seen a growing divide in the relationship between lawyers and their clients. He reminisces of the days when lawyers handled all of their client’s legal needs, ranging from an adoption to a will, a conveyance, a divorce, or an incorporation. Now, there is more specialization and less client contact. To Justice Burnyeat, this unfortunate reality has diminished the personal satisfaction of a legal practice. Finally, Justice Burnyeat sees the largest crisis of our current legal system as a lack of adequate funding towards legal aid and a lack of access to justice, especially in the area of family law. As a member of the BC Supreme Court bench, Justice Burnyeat directly deals with the obstacles faced by self-represented litigants. Not only does he witness unnecessary hardships on individuals who are forced to represent themselves due to a lack of legal aid, but as a member of the judiciary, Justice Burnyeat must provide assistance and guidance to self-represented litigants. Not only does this mandate risk creating an illusion of partiality for one party, but it substantially increases delays within the court system.
Throughout his remarkable career Justice Burnyeat has been recognized as one of the 75 outstanding alumni of UBC’s first 75 years, received a Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal in 2002, the UBC Alumni Achievement Award for Volunteer Leadership in 2009, and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012. When asked what accomplishment brings him most pride, Justice Burnyeat humbly states that his greatest achievement is the huge success that Bard on the Beach, a Shakespeare festival based in Vancouver, has garnered since his time as the organization’s first President in 1990.
Justice Burnyeat was extremely involved in fundraising initiatives for the creation of Allard Hall and continues to support current and prospective law school students. When asked what drives him to continue to foster close relationships with the Allard School of Law and the University, Justice Burnyeat says that he hopes to “pay back the considerable knowledge and experience that [he] gained when [he] was in law school and since.”
Justice Burnyeat advises law students and future lawyers to remain active in their communities and to foster societal connections, all the while continuing to have fun. He encourages students to participate in clinical and externship opportunities during their time in law school, such as the Rise Women’s Legal Centre, Indigenous Community Legal Clinic, and the Business Law Clinic operated at the Allard School of Law. Finally, he recommends students watch RBG, a documentary on the US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as well as the occasional episode of Perry Mason.
Justice Grant D. Burnyeat participated in the Allard School of Law Oral History Project in June 2018. For more, read Profile of Grant Douglas Burnyeat from The Advocate, 53 (1995) and Profile of Grant Douglas Burnyeat from the UBC Law Alumni Magazine, Winter 2012.