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Punching our Weight – Academic Law and Public Understanding

By William Twining FBA, QC, DCL, JD, LLD Emeritus Quain Professor of Jurisprudence 28 May 2009 at the LSE

Professor Fiona Cownie welcomed everyone to this first lecture of a series to be held around the country to mark the 100th anniversary of the Society of Legal Scholars. Honorary Secretary, Stephen Bailey introduced the speaker, noting that William was the oldest living former president (holding office in 1979). His reference to longevity was taken in good heart and William Twining proceeded to introduce the subject of his lecture, the thesis that legal scholarship should work in a broader context and contribute to public understanding of the law and went on to identify barriers to this ambition, namely that:

– The number and variety of interested parties – the bar, legal academics, law schools, social scientists etc results in the need for close co-operation that has, in the past, been difficult to manage.

– That, although there is a chair for the public understanding of science (Professor Marcus du Sautoy is the second holder of the Charles Simonyi Chair in the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford) no equal position exists in Law. A figurehead for the humanities and social sciences, such as Richard Dawkins had been for science, would be an asset.

– Much research is carried out by legal academics, in their own time and is therefore unpaid and not highly rated.

– That the lectures and conferences that exist, even those, for example the Hamlyn Lectures which are designed for public access, attract only lawyers.

– The fact that research into criminal law draws the majority of funding and exposure.

– The lack of collaboration between academics from related disciplines e.g. Social studies and law suggesting a narrow view of the law amongst academics and a need to broaden this internally before the subject could be opened up.

– The position of the Society of Legal Scholars itself. Memberships individual and optional rather than membership for legal academics coming from the job. This hampers the Society in being an authoritative voice for the academic community.

Having noted the obstacles to a broader public understanding of law, WT concluded by considering new media and in particular, blogs.  Finding that, as publications and events, blogs were not often intended for general consumption and address a narrow community of lawyers or lack gravity. However, he identified some exceptions that encourage careful watching of the new media. For example Jack Balkin’s blogspot, http://balkin.blogspot.com/

Finally, WT suggested that a useful course for the Society to take would be to lobby for the establishment of a new chair of the public understanding of law as a step forward in encouraging engagement with the public.

The floor was then open for questions and comments, many were raised including:

– The concern that the demand to created powerful arguments in the public arena could lead to simplification and a lack of balance, and the presentation of political rather than legal views.

– The difficulty particular presentational difficulty that law has over for example, science: unless dramatised (and there are many popular examples, CrimeWatch etc) law is text based and not suited for visual media.

– Service Teaching e.g. Law for engineers, contract for accountants had mostly disappeared from Law School and was an opportunity to engage with other walks of life.

– That there were several opportunities for multi-disciplinary activity between law, humanities and social science but that much depended on an individual academic rather than an explicit universities policy.

The evening concluded with a drinks reception.