Osgoode PhD candidate receives prestigious Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship

Even amid the glitz and glam of Hollywood, Deanne Sowter had a longing to make a real difference – not a reel one. Taking on the role of a true changemaker led her to Osgoode Hall Law School at York University.

Now the former film producer turned Osgoode PhD candidate is poised to influence the future of family law practice and legal ethics as one of the recipients of what some consider Canada’s most prestigious doctoral award: the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship (CGS).

Sowter was officially named Nov. 28 as a 2022 recipient of the Vanier CGS, which will provide her with $50,000 per year for up to three years to support her research.

Osgoode Hall Law School Dean Mary Condon paid tribute to her achievement. “This is wonderful news, not only for Deanne, Osgoode and York, but for Canada’s legal community,” she said. “Deanne’s work in the area of legal ethics and family law has already been cited by the Supreme Court of Canada, and the awarding of the Vanier scholarship will help to ensure that the legal system will continue to benefit from her research.”

In a testament to the significance and quality of her research, Sowter learned soon after receiving word about the Vanier that she had also placed first among 136 applicants across Canada for a SSHRC Canada Graduate Scholarship – Doctoral, valued at $35,000 per year for up to three years. She was obliged to decline the offer, along with a $15,000, one-year Ontario Graduate Scholarship, in favour of the Vanier scholarship because students may only hold one Tri-Council CGS award at a time.

“The Vanier means an enormous amount to me,” she said. “It’s an endorsement of my research, but it is also an endorsement of research on family law, legal ethics and family violence, which is extremely encouraging.”

“There is a serious need for family law and legal ethics research in Canada”, she added. “I am grateful to have this opportunity to focus exclusively on my research and hopefully continue to contribute meaningfully to the study and practice of family law in Canada.”

Osgoode has provided the support, the expertise, and the inspiration for her to thrive as a doctoral student, said Sowter, who paid particular tribute to her PhD adviser, Professor Trevor Farrow.

“Osgoode is very fortunate to have a diligent and accomplished scholar like Deanne as part of its outstanding graduate program,” said Farrow, who serves as Osgoode’s Associate Dean, Research. “Her work in the areas of legal ethics, family law and domestic violence is well-regarded and widely cited, and her PhD research is challenging and reimagining professional responsibility in the context of family law.”

Sowter’s doctoral research is based on her argument that the prevailing understanding of a lawyer’s role in Canada fails to capture the realities of family law and does not respond effectively to non-adversarial advocacy, family violence and issues involving a client’s child.

“My dissertation relies on legal theory, doctrinal, and social science research to explain the impacts of those inadequacies for family law clients,” she explained, “and to offer a reformulation of family lawyers’ duties in order to support legal and regulatory change.”

Like many mature students, it took Sowter a little time to find her true calling. She first earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in film and video from York University in 2000, and then went on to the American Film Institute in Los Angeles for a master of fine arts degree in 2002. She later worked for producer Kathleen Kennedy (Seabiscuit, Munich). But she was missing something, she noted in her application for the Vanier scholarship.

“The truth is, as much as I loved making movies, and still miss the comradery and creativity of that life, I was never quite fulfilled,” she confided. “I wanted to contribute to this life in a more meaningful way. I grew envious of people who worked with real people – my life seemed very superficial in comparison.”

She calls her choice to attend Osgoode Hall Law School for both her JD and PhD programs one of the best decisions of her life. Since earning her JD in 2013, she has earned an LLM from the University of Toronto, worked as a family lawyer with a Toronto firm, as an instructor at the University of Calgary, as an adjunct professor at Western University’s Faculty of Law, and is currently a Research Fellow at the Winkler Institute for Dispute Resolution at Osgoode Hall Law School.

The Vanier CGS program plays an important role in fulfilling the Government of Canada’s Science and Technology strategy to promote the development and application of leading-edge knowledge. It is also intended to support the development of a world-class workforce and attract and retain the world’s top graduate students. To be selected, students must demonstrate strong leadership skills and a high standard of scholarly achievement in graduate studies in the social sciences and humanities, natural sciences and engineering or health.