Mtre Elise Groulx

Mtre Elise Groulx: Star without borders 

Translated from the original french version by Mélanie Dugré, lawyer

Mtre Elise Groulx was born in Montréal to actors who were devoted to the arts, France and its culture. As a teenager, when leaving a theatrical performance starring her father, she found herself surrounded by some of the greats, the likes of Jean-Louis Roux, Jean Gascon, Janine Sutto, Huguette Oligny and Denise and Gilles Pelletier. They asked her if she intended to follow in her parents’ footsteps.  Her reply was that she wasn’t interested in play-acting and that her career would be a much more serious one than her parents’.  Yet one day at the Montreal Courthouse, while addressing a jury, she suddenly realized that she too, in her own way, had chosen the theatre.  Indeed, she claims to have launched her international projects in a very artistic, creative and spontaneous way, with no safety net and relying solely on her instincts.

After studies at Collège Marie-de-France, where she often defended fellow students when disciplined, Elise completed a bachelor’s degree with a major in political sciences at the Université du Québec à Montréal and earned her law degree with distinction at the Université de Montréal. Curious about the rest of the world and hoping to discover new cultures and learn how other societies function, she decided to do graduate work in France and England. She obtained two certificates in criminology and comparative criminal law from the Université de Paris II (Panthéon-Assas) and a LL.M. (master’s in comparative criminal law, human rights and criminology) from the London School of Economics (LSE).

Once back in Québec, Elise completed her training at the Bar School and began to practice as a defence lawyer with Legal Aid, where she remained for nearly nine years.  She then began private practice, where her cases included representing the interests of the policewoman involved in the notorious Barnabé affair. In 1994, Elise attended a luncheon given by the Montreal Criminal Defence Lawyers Association (MCDLA), where she felt personally addressed by the passionate appeal from Judge Deschênes for participants to become involved in the development of the new field of international justice.  She immediately volunteered and became involved in the activities of the ICTFY (International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia). Then, at a conference held in Brussels two years later, when Louise Arbour was appointed chief prosecutor of the ICTFY, she came up with the idea of creating an International Criminal Defence Lawyers Association (ICDAA). This international non-governmental organization eventually obtained consultative status with the United Nations’ Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie (OIF). Elise found that international criminal justice paid little attention to the right to a defence, which was virtually absent from discussions or texts.  The ICDA therefore sought to reinforce the defence as a pillar of international criminal tribunals and became known as the champion of the presumption of innocence and full respect for the right to a fair and equitable trial. Unsurprisingly, the reception given Elise and ICDAA by the UN was not an warm one, since, as Elise points out, “when you appear at the UN as a defence lawyer, you enjoy absolutely no sympathy.  In fact, you are extremely unpopular because in a context of atrocities, the focus is usually on the victims.”

But ICDAA stood its ground and made itself known from its advocacy activities by systematically participating in the preparatory commissions surrounding the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC).  The ICDAA brought forward proposals that have been included in the Rules of Procedure and Evidence of the ICC which include, among others, recognition of the independence of the legal profession within the new system of justice.

The ICDAA was also granted Amicus curiae status in various cases before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). In 2008, its intervention alongside Human Rights Watch helped prevent the transfer of prisoners from the ICTR to Rwanda. Finally, the ICDAA organizes training throughout the world to familiarize lawyers with the workings of international criminal courts and the issues associated with protecting the rights of defence.

Elise is also founder of the International Criminal Bar (ICB) created in Montréal in June 2002. She became its first president after having led a movement to bring together national bars, NGOs and individual lawyers from more than 40 countries. The ICB exists to support lawyers who practice before the International Criminal Court and assure recognition of the independence of the legal profession while improving access to justice within the new international justice system.

Since 2003, Elise has also worked on the responsibility of companies and their executives, especially in conflict zones, in the context of expanded international criminal law.  This new expertise has resulted in her serving as a consultant to multinational companies and in the same vein, her current pet project is a major undertaking on “human rights and business”.  The idea is to educate lawyers about the new legal civil and criminal liability system that entails risks for their clients, while obtaining support for this initiative from local and international bar associations. Elise notes that it is often economic agents that support the political and military leaders responsible for massive human rights violations, and it is fundamental for lawyers, in a context of due diligence, to understand the nature of the relationships their clients may have with such players. In her current crusade, Elise enjoys the support of, among others, the American Bar Association (ABA), the Conseil National des Barreaux (France) and former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, Ian Binnie, who has become her true ally and even mentor.  Elise fervently hopes to see this project also become established in Québec and Canada through training offered by the Bar and in law firms.  Her project recently received congratulations and support from the Executive Committee of the Barreau du Québec, in a resolution adopted at its October 23, 2013 meeting.

Despite an unconventional and untypical career path, Elise still remains profoundly affected by her contacts with others.  She still remembers a lecture she gave in Peru in 2004 to members of a union federation working in very difficult, probably inhuman conditions.  “Despite my pathetic Spanish and the extreme heat, my audience remained engaged, and people came over to me afterwards to hug me, convinced that I represented their hope of justice.”

The list of awards, prizes and recognitions given to Elise is certainly impressive. In 2004 she was given the Champion of Justice Award of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in the United States, which honours an individual who has shown extraordinary dedication to the field of human rights.  In 2007, the Barreau du Québec conferred on Elise the title of Advocatus Emeritus (Ad.E.) and in 2012, she was selected by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) as one of “Twenty Extraordinary Canadians” in honour of her contribution to law and civil liberties in Canada and throughout the world. Also in 2012 , Elise received the Canadian Bar Association’s Walter S. Tarnopolsky Prize, given to a Canadian resident whose has made an outstanding contribution to domestic and international human rights.. Elise is also an honorary member of the Barreau de Draguignan in France and she was recently admitted, in July 2013, to the Ordre des Avocats de Paris. She is honorary professor at the Université Inca Garcilazo de la Vega, in Lima, Peru. She is a recipient of medals from the Barreau du Québec (2003), the Ordre des avocats à la Cour de Paris (2002), as well as the Faculty of Law of the Université de Montréal (2003). Although she considers herself privileged to have her efforts praised and recognized by her peers, Elise points out the primary goal of her pioneering work has always been to advance the cause of justice and the government of laws, which can only be achieved by a sincere, sustained and relentless commitment. Those who assume her international career means a life of glamour and jet-setting she reminds that she has acted her role in often precarious conditions and that what she has done is only a pebble when you are trying to move mountains.

Based in Washington for the last year, Elise believes that this new reality, filled with immense challenges, will assist her ambitious projects already underway. Elise Groulx, defence lawyer, member of the Barreau du Québec for more than 25 years, specialist in international criminal law and mother of three children, can point to an impressive record, filled with accomplishments that many have aspired to but few have achieved.  Wherever she happens to be on our planet, Elise Groulx is a worthy representative of our Bar, a star without borders whose reputation reflects on all members of the Bar of Montreal.  Thank you, Mtre Elise Groulx!