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  • Uncommon Oaths

    by CLBC Administrator | Jun 22, 2011

    Have you ever heard of the chicken oath?

    Generally speaking, when going to court as a witness, people are prepared to raise their right hands and swear an oath on a holy book to tell the truth. But this isn’t the only way to do it.


    A Lawyer's Oath of Office - 1948

    A century ago, the chicken oath was used primarily by those of Chinese descent in British Columbia.  The oath involved the witness signing his name on a piece of paper, followed by a ceremony outside the court in which a rooster's head was chopped off on a block and the paper oath was set on fire.

    For example, according to the article “The King’s Oath or Chicken Oath”, in 1895 a grocer on Vancouver Island, Simon Leiser & Co., submitted an invoice to the local government for several chickens and a knife supplied to an H.A. Simpson for a trial at Union, BC. The government declined to pay the bill because Mr. Simpson was acting on behalf of the plaintiffs.

    A 1965 article in The Advocate states that "[c]olourful rituals ought not to come as a surprise since the Oaths Act of 1888 gives wide scope allowing witnesses to take the Oath in any form and with such rites as bind their own conscience."

    Other non-Christian Chinese oaths consisted of the candle oath (whereby the witness holds their hand over a lit candle while swearing the oath and then extinguishes the flame), the saucer oath (when the witness breaks a saucer and then swears to tell the truth) and the paper oath (the witness signs their name to a piece of paper and then burns it).

    "Indeed counsel in one case expressed relief that a particular Chinese witness felt bound by the saucer method.  Some Chinese, he pointed out, require a white cockerel to be slaughtered in court.  But even saucers can cause problems.  When 20 Chinese turned up as witnesses at an East London county court the proceedings had to be held up while the court usher scoured local crockery shops."  ...

    "Colonial Magistrates used to encounter many strange customs. ... [I]n North Kenya some tribes used to bite skin from a live dog and say 'as I bite this dog, so may I be eaten if I lie.'  A Masai presented the court with cooked rice decked with seven yellow solanum berries.  In Tanganyika a member of the Akimbu tribe once held a deadly puff adder before his face saying, 'If I am going to tell lies may this snake kill me.'  The snake did not.  Nevertheless, the tribesman lied heartily and was jaoled for perjury."


    According to Donkers v. Kovach, State of Michigan, Court of Appeals, File No. 270311, December 18, 2007 (p.6), the origin of raising the right hand dates back to Roman times.  The penalty for perjury was a brand on the right hand.  Thus, if one was taking an oath, one would be required to raise the right hand to show that s/he had not been convicted of perjury in the past.

    In England in the Middle Ages, a religious oath was used to exclude non-Christians from participating in the English legal and business communities.  Eventually, however, the English legal system began to accommodate these differences by allowing non-Christians to swear on a sacred text to any Higher Being which they believed would bring divine punishment if they committed perjury.

    See our Asked & Answered on Oaths for more uncommon oaths.

    For additional information on oaths, affirmation and declarations relating to specific religious protocols, try the UK's Equal Treatment Bench Book, chapter 3.2: Oaths, Affirmations, and Declarations (p.3-9 to 3-18).

    The current oaths used in Canada are essentially the same as those historically used in Britain.


    J. de Villiers, in his article "Oath or Affirmation? Or Neither?", argues "[I]n practice in our courts (at least in matters under the jurisdiction of the federal Parliament) it is assumed that witnesses will take the oath in conformity with Anglican ritual unless they expressly elect either to take an oath in conformity with some other religion or to affirm."  ...

    "It is left to the witness to express spontaneously the wish to swear in some other manner or to affirm.  The practice assumes that an oath is preferred over an affirmation and that the Anglican oath is the preferred form of oath.  Thus it discriminates against Quakers and other non-Anglican religious people as well as agnostics and atheists."

    However, the BC Evidence Act, RSBC 1996, c 124, sections 21 to 22 discusses the validity of the oath regardless of absence or difference of religious belief, as well as oaths administered by uplifted hand.


    As recently as 1993 in R. v. B. (K.G.), [1993], 1 SCR 740 at 789, the Supreme Court of Canada said: “There remain compelling reasons to prefer statements made under oath, solemn affirmation or solemn declaration.  While the oath will not motivate all witnesses to tell the truth (as is indicated by the witnesses' perjury in this case), its administration may serve to impress on more honest witnesses the seriousness and significance of their statements, especially where they incriminate another person in a criminal investigation.”


    There are records of several cases where the chicken oath was administered in Canada:

    • R v Wooey, (1902) 9 B.C.R. 569, 8 C.C.C. 25.  In the course of a murder trial, it was proposed that a witness swear the Paper Oath. C. Wilson, a Vancouver lawyer acting for the defendant, believed that the Chicken Oath would be more binding on the witness's conscience. After questioning the interpreters involved, the court then instructed the witness to be sworn using the Chicken Oath. 
    • The Nanaimo Mining Riots Court Case, October 1914.

    Chicken Oath Sworn After the Nanaimo Riots, 1913

    Photographer: Nanaimo District Museum Photograph Collection 
    Photo of judge, magistrates and witnesses involved in the Nanaimo Mining Riots Court Case swearing a chicken oath

    • R. v. Wong, (1925) 36 BCR 120, 44 CCC 133
      According to the Canadian Holy War: A Story of Clans, Tongs, Murder, and Bigotry by I. Macdonald & B. O'Keefe, p. 68-9, the chicken oath was administered during the trial for the 1924 murder of Janet Smith in Vancouver BC.
    • R. v. Wong, September 1930, Brantford Ontario.  According to an article by H. Ibbotson in the Brantford Expositor, one of the highlights of this murder case was the administration of the chicken oath to various witnesses during the preliminary hearing and the trial.


    "The Art of Swearing a Resounding Oath".  The Advocate (1965) 23:95.  (available in Vancouver and regional courthouse libraries)

    “The Chinese Oath” by P.S. Lampman in 3 Can. L. Rev. 24 (1904).  This article was published in British Columbia History, the Journal of the British Columbia Historical Federation in 2003.  (available in Hein Online)

    “The King’s Oath or Chicken Oath” by R. Greene (p. 38-9) BC Historical News, v. 36, no. 4, Fall 2003.

     “Oath or Affirmation?  Or Neither?" by J. de Villiers, The Advocate, (2009) 67: 199-207 (available in Vancouver and regional courthouse libraries)

    “Oaths and Affirmations,” by H. Rees.  Fillmore Riley Report 48 (Spring 2000).

  • Quicklaw Roll-Out Continued...

    by CLBC Administrator | Jun 16, 2011

    ...and completed!

    Back in March we were excited to announce that we licensed Quicklaw (LexisNexis Canada) for clients to use in our Vancouver, Victoria and regional libraries. At the time, we mentioned that when we were satisfied with its performance and value for clients, we would hopefully continue the rollout by adding QL to some of our smaller local libraries.

    Well, those weren't simply words. So again we are pleased to announce that we’ve extended our QL subscription so that clients can use it in all our libraries. That's right! Come in to any of our libraries and you will have access to QL's Full Service Domestic package. This package not only provides an extensive collection of full-text court and tribunal decisions, case and legislation citators,  and words and phrases, it also offers the following:

    • The complete online collection of Halsbury's Laws of Canada
    • Solicitor Forms & Precedents to help draft customized documents
    • The brand new Canada Quantums, offering coverage of all quantum awards from common law jurisdictions
    • The Canada Digest, with over 897,000 case summaries organized by area of law for easy browsing
    • Over 100 NetLetters to keep you up to date on the latest case law
    • More than 800 domestic and international law journals

    So we now have Quicklaw in addition to CriminalSource. We wrote a Stream post earlier on CriminalSource, but just as a reminder it includes a comprehensive collection of criminal, constitutional, evidence, motor vehicle and immigration cases from all Canadian jurisdictions. It also has annotated criminal legislation, sentencing digests, and many well-known and heavily-used criminal texts. 

    With these two suscriptions, we have significantly increased the content available to clients who use our smaller local library branches. And stay tuned as we continue to work on making more online content available in all of our libraries.

  • BC Courts Unveil 24 Information Packages for the Self-Represented

    by CLBC Administrator | Jun 09, 2011

    Access to Justice. It's attracted plenty of attention lately, although not in a "good news story" sort of way, regrettably.

    BC Court of Appeal Chief Justice Lance Finch called it the "elephant in the room", and Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin warned of the "very dangerous road" the legal system is on, pointing to the dower truth that access to justice is beyond the reach of many Canadians. Law Society of BC President Gavin Hume, QC put it pithily, “You don’t need to go to law school to figure out that without access to justice there can be no justice." 

    The media have taken notice too, and (being not likewise beholden to judicial reserve) tend to be blunt about it. As Ian Mulgrew of the Vancouver Sun summarized it in an article this past February, “No matter what your metaphor—the elephant in the room or the writing on the wall—the situation is alarming.”

    When Len Doust, QC released the "Foundation for Change" report of the Public Commission on Legal Aid this past March, the report, although illuminating, hardly brightened expressions of those who read the thorough account of access to justice's failure in BC. Add to this the fact that BC’s contribution to legal aid plans just keeps dropping—in 2009/2010 it was almost half of what Ontario managed ($11.81 versus $20.04 per capita) according to Statistics Canada—and it’s easy to see how helplessness settles in.

    Cut to the Good News: 24 Information Packages from the Courts

    It’s some comfort to know that light finds its way even into the dark places sometimes. (And in all fairness I ought point out that it's hardly all darkness, with thousands of lawyers volunteering, working pro bono, or engaged in careers in the non-profit legal sector.)

    The good news recently started as an inconspicuous little blurb on the BC Supreme Court’s homepage on April 21, 2011 announcing new information packages for self-represented litigants. We put up a quick announcement at the time listing the two dozen new packages—we saw an immediate effect. Of the members of the public who use our Vancouver branch's computer facilities, several came in soon after to complete forms in connection with the information packages.

    The information packages are aimed at self-represented litigants and others engaged in a variety of court-related applications and proceedings. Most of the information packages contain, where applicable, forms, instructions and some commentary, but vary widely—from non-adversarial matters (such as name changes, indigency applications, company restoration, and even adoptions), to appeals and judicial review issues (including separate packages for appeals generally, Masters’ orders, Legal Professions Act reviews, small claims, and petitions for judicial review), to post-judgment and execution issues (such as packages for costs, enforcement and garnishment issues, etc.), to civil litigation basics (chambers applications, responses, CPLs, financial statements, etc.).

    For self-represented people and those who assist them, the packages are as indispensable as better-known resources such as the Justice Education Society’s Guidebooks for Representing Yourself In Supreme Court, or JP Boyd’s BC Family Law Resource with its various sample documents.

    If you are ever in a position to refer someone to legal information about the BC Supreme Court, bookmark this right now.


    Not that long ago, BC Supreme Court's registries offered printed forms and other information over the counter—albeit the degree of assistance varied between court locations. With the introduction of the new Rules, however, ready-to-fill-in forms virtually disappeared from counters across the Province, withdrawn presumably out of wariness over old support materials’ inaccuracy given the transition.

    But it looks as though these new information packages do more than simply stand in place for the ones the Registry pulled.

    Sheri Albert, Provincial Registrars’ Program Manager at the Law Courts told me, “These packages are being offered to the public for the first time and are targeted to assist self represented litigants by providing some general instructions, applicable forms, any related rules and/or Practice Directions specific to the application.”

    Meanwhile, Ms. Albert emphasizes that they are intended for procedural guidance, and not as a substitute for legal advice (a refrain that all of us in the legal information sector understand too well). Nonetheless, the information packages will be up-to-date, and they will certainly be more useful in addressing the needs of self-represented individuals than no support at all.

    “They were prepared by judiciary staff and will continue to be administered by us, which is why we chose to post them on the Court’s website.”

    As grim as the state of legal aid and access to justice may be, by placing these information packages online (via www.clicklaw.bc.ca, for example) and in the hands of public legal education and information providers, the Courts are at least rendering certain court procedures a little less opaque.

    Even though legal information is no substitute for legal representation, it is clear that in combination with other initiatives, such as unbundled legal services or paralegals and articled students providing certain legal services at lower cost, we are seeing a meaningful group effort from many stakeholders in the legal community. 

    Have you used or referred anyone else to the new information packages? If you would, please share your thoughts on these new packages and the access to justice issue—whether you're confident in their usefulness, or doubtful of Band-Aid measures. Please discuss and contribute your comments below.


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