Hello current and prospective NCA students! In today’s blog I’ll outline my experience with and tips for taking the Canadian Constitutional Law NCA exam which is a core exam for all NCA candidates. This means that even if you’ve already done Canadian Constitutional Law in previous studies—I personally took the subject during my LL.B studies in London— you will still need to complete this NCA to obtain your certificate.
As core exams are non-negotiable, you can start studying them even while you are waiting for your official NCA assessment. This is helpful for those of you who want to get a jump-start on the NCA process while waiting for your NCA applications to be processed.
Canadian Constitutional law is the true foundation of Canadian law so NCA Tutor™ recommends completing this exam first or in your first NCA sitting. You will find constitutional issues laced throughout your other core exams and some elective exams such as Evidence and Family Law. This is certainly an exam worth spending time on. Having a firm grasp of the subject will help you in later exams.
Difficulty and Key Focuses
Personally, I found this exam quite easy but I did take the subject during my LL.B studies so this was mostly review for me. For those of you in a similar boat, do note that the NCA exam is less focused on historical development than your university course may have been and you should still re-study.
Overall the exam is focused on four main areas: 1) Sources of law and amending procedures, 2) the constituion’s relationship with Quebec, 3) Federalism and Judicial Review of federalism, 4) Rights and Freedoms including, general constitutional rights, charter rights, and aboriginal and treaty rights.
If you did your degree in the UK where constitution and administrative law are taught together, do note that in Canadian law these are considered separate topics. While administrative topics are discussed in the textbook, they are there for your general understanding. Administrative matters such as standing and in-depth judicial review are reservedly tested under the Canadian Administrative Law NCA exam. You may mention these topics in passing on the Constitutional exam but they certainly won’t be the focus of any question.
Things to Look Out For
While there isn’t anything particularly tricky about this exam, don’t get bogged down in any of the theoretical information contained in the course syllabus—understand the main points and move on. I had prepared myself for theoretical essay questions and used none of that material in my exam; rather I was given problem questions looking for practical solutions to constitutional infringements. While every exam is different, you should ensure you have a firm grasp on the four key topics I noted above. Additionally, there are some specific technical or tricky part of those topics you should pay special attention to…
Firstly, understand how federal and provincial powers are divided (see Sections 91/92 of The Constitution Act) as this will help you understand some of the older, pre-Charter cases. Also understand how the Charter is applied in Canada. Remember that private individuals cannot bring Charter violation cases against each other as it only applies to government and quasi-governmental bodies; these distinctions aren’t always straightforward and are worth exploring in detail.
Naturally, you should also have a firm grasp on key Charter rights such as Freedom of Expression, Freedom of Religion, and Equality Rights, and Life/Liberty rights. Once you’ve fully understood one of the Charter freedoms (e.g. Freedom of Religion), you will likely find understanding Freedom of Expression much easier as the working theory underlying them is similar; however Equality protections operate on a much stricter and limited framework. Aboriginal rights are another good topic to have a handle on; this appeared as an element of a larger problem question on my exam but could also be a stand-alone.
Possibly the most important element you must grasp is how the government can limit or justify Charter infringements using Section 1 and the Oakes Test. The potential for limitation is something that should be explored in every Charter right violation question as you will be expected to address whether the government has any ability to justify offending legislation or actions.
Finally, ensure you understand what remedies are available when someone’s Charter rights have been infringed and are not justified. There are different remedies depending on the cause of action and two different sections of the constitution depending on whether the action was set-off by legislation or governmental action.
I personally used the NCA Tutor™ notes for my exam. Students often complain that the textbook is confusing and convoluted. If you are looking for a more digestible companion book, I personally recommend Sharpe & Roach’s “The Charter of Rights and Freedoms.” Though not as extensive as the assigned book, and certainly not a replacement, it provides a very comprehensive overview of how Charter rights work in a story-telling format that I personally found easier to comprehend.
Finally, because remedies are so important, you can find my remedies one-page reference sheet here! It’s a great tool to bring to the exam and use to quickly discuss remedies in the conclusion of your problem questions.
Tiffany is an LLM candidate at NYU Law. and a regular blogger for NCA Tutor™.