Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Who Am I?

I am an English socio-legal professor trying out blogging for the first time. You can find my academic vita and other details on my website.

This blog is for me to comment on the academy in the UK and talk about my research and reactions to it.

I used the term socio-legal above, so let me explain it. Most law professors analyze court cases and legislation. It's often done in isolation of what is happening in the real world. Socio-legal studies attempts to reverse that by examining the effect/impact/process of law in the community.

Let me give an example: the first socio-legal research I ever did was a study of barristers' clerks. To those of you outside the UK and mainly Australia, this is a strange job title. You need to go back to Charles Dickens to make sense of this. Barristers have always seen themselves as the aristocracy of the English legal profession, wearing horse hair wigs and gowns, looking like characters from an 18th century drama. If you watch English TV programs, you'll see them as the advocates who present cases in court, eg, Rumpole of the Bailey. They are mostly middle and upper class with private educations. Barristers usually don't deal with clients directly, instead they use a clerk to negotiate their fees, book their court appearances, and advise them on the progress (or otherwise) of their careers. Unlike their masters, barristers clerks are generally working or lower middle class, with little education. They learn on the job as apprentices. The difference between clerks and barristers was summarized by a senior clerk telling his junior:
"When I call a barrister by his first name, you call him 'Mr Smith'. When I call him 'Mr Smith', you call him 'Sir'. When I call him 'Sir', you don't speak to him."
My research showed how the legal system and the ways litigation were handled depended significantly on an unknown group of people who commandered the backstage. I carried out this research by becoming a barrister's clerk for a while, as an anthropologist would. (You can find the book, Barristers' Clerks: The Law's Middlemen by clicking the title.) If I had merely described the rules governing the legal system, little of this would have been picked up or given the due it deserved. This is why I think socio legal studies is important.

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