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“Just” Jurisprudence

22nd May 2024

In-person conferences are great for that spontaneous riffing of ideas, which is so much harder to accomplish online. I had one of these chats at the SLS Annual Conference at Kings College London in 2022, after I had heard a paper by Sahar Shah (University of Bristol Law School) which employed Critical Legal Methodology.

Jurisprudence is often characterised as being resistant to change, and speaking as that rarest of beasts – a secular natural lawyer who fully buys into the maxim ‘lex iniusta non est lex’ – you might have expected me to live up to this stereotype when hearing Sahar’s paper. But instead, I was struck that had I applied my own methodology to the problem discussed, I would have reached exactly the same conclusions. We got talking about how at their heart, both approaches seemed to share a similar aim – to shine a light on where and why the law was in some sense illegitimate. As somebody who was taught a comparatively narrow jurisprudence curriculum, this was a real light bulb moment for me.

Now fast-forward to the summer of 2023. As is now something of a tradition, an American colleague shared on X/Twitter a copy of the reading list they had set for their Jurisprudence course in the upcoming academic year. What happened next will be largely familiar to anybody familiar with the mechanics of academic discourse on X/Twitter – or, perhaps, any discourse on X/Twitter. Two distinct camps emerged instantly to champion or disparage the reading list: in one camp were the analytical jurisprudence adherents, and in the other what might broadly be categorised as the ‘critical legal theorists’.

This particular ‘discourse’ had a longer shelf life than many on the platform, perhaps because it got to the heart of long-simmering tensions in legal academia about what a contemporary legal theory curriculum should look like. These tensions are perhaps especially fraught at a time when economic, epistemic, and socio-political issues seem to be encouraging radical re-evaluations of our core assumptions about what (and who) the study of law should be for and about. Some believe that the core questions and debates that currently constitute the ‘canon’ of a traditional jurisprudence curriculum are fundamental and timeless. Others say that the notions of fundamentality and timelessness are precisely what we need to dissect and interrogate through legal theory. These people might say that jurisprudence should instead help us understand how the law works in the real world – how it is used to reinforce (or subvert) power dynamics in our lived realities.

Can these two seemingly diametrically opposed positions ever be reconciled? This year, my SLS Jurisprudence Co Convenor Alex Green (York Law School) waded into the aforementioned Discourse, and tackled this question directly. It was around this time that Sahar got back in touch with us both, and we found that we had all developed a deep curiosity about ‘other’ legal theories and whether we had ideas, motivations and questions in common. We agreed that the SLS Jurisprudence Section might have a role to play in bringing together the jurisprudential Montagues and Capulets, and an idea was born.

Is it unfair to dismiss analytic approaches as ‘just’ jurisprudence, detached from our lived realities? Similarly, is it unfair to place critical legal theory at the fringes of the discipline – or is it possible to say that critical jurisprudence is just jurisprudence? Could we not try and find common ground here and identify a new way of teaching our subject to reach a more just jurisprudence?

Well – it can’t hurt to try, right? And try we shall. Thanks to the generosity of the SLS and Bristol Law School, we will be hosting a one-day conference at Bristol in November of this year. We will challenge the traditional categories that have emerged in jurisprudence and are embedded in both our research and teaching, and will be hosting a range of leading scholars in panels whose purpose is to disrupt the traditional categories in jurisprudence scholarship. Already confirmed as participating are:

  • Keynote: Professor Rebecca Tsosie (University of Arizona)
  • Professor Kimberley Brayson (University of Leicester)
  • Professor Joanne Conaghan (University of Bristol)
  • Professor Roger Cotterrel (QMUL)
  • Professor Margaret Davies (Flinders University)
  • Professor Julie Dickson (University of Oxford)
  • Dr Alex Green (University of York)
  • Professor Jennifer Hendry (University of Leeds)
  • Dr Joshua Jowitt (University of Newcastle)
  • Dr Emily Kidd White (Osgoode Hall)
  • Dr Vidya Kumar (SOAS)
  • Professor Dan Priel (Osgoode Hall)
  • Dr Sahar Shah (University of Bristol)
  • Professor Lorenzo Zucca (KCL)
  • Professor Illan Wall (University of Galway)

We have three main aims in mind. Firstly, to highlight underrepresented perspective in ‘classical’ jurisprudence questions – such as those grounded, for example, in Indigenous legal knowledge or Queer theory. Secondly, to foster a genuine and productive discussion between analytical and critical theorists as to where we might find common ground. And lastly, to create new and lasting networks that will benefit theorists at every stage of their academic careers.

Jurisprudence and legal theory shouldn’t be narrow, and our subject stream should be a forum in which everybody producing quality work of any stripe is welcome to contribute. We must faithfully represent the broad range of perspectives that undeniably exist within our discipline, and we hope that by putting our money where our mouth is, our subject will be richer for the dialogues we will create.

Joshua Jowitt, Newcastle Law School

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