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Law in the Real World report launch

7 November 2006

Legal experts who can review how laws are created and applied are an endangered species, according to ‘Law in the Real World’, a report co-written by Professor Dame Hazel Genn (UCL Laws) that was launched last night at the British Academy.

The report shows that, as a generation of legal researchers retires, there is a serious shortage of academics equipped to examine how the law works in practice, as opposed to the way that textbooks say it does.

Fewer than ten per cent of UK academics carry out research to review how the law actually works, according to the Socio-Legal Studies Association Directory. The number of grant applications made to the Economic and Social Research Council for socio-legal research projects has fallen by nearly two-thirds since 1997/98, with none successful in 2005/06.

The potential extinction of researchers who can scrutinise lawmaking gives cause for concern at a time when the number of laws and regulations in Britain is growing relentlessly. Evidence about how the law works in practice is vital to inform practical legislation across the board, from improving the efficiency of the criminal justice system to the way courts handle child contact disputes in divorce cases.

Cover of "Law in the Real World" report

Professor Dame Hazel Genn was made an honorary Queen’s Counsel in October for the large number of empirical civil justice studies she has undertaken. At the launch of the report, she said, “Law isn’t just something on the printed page; it affects almost every aspect of our lives – our workplaces, our families, our business makers, our security and our dealings with our fellow citizens. Claims are made – often by policymakers and lawyers – about the impact of new law and regulations: and that may not be how it works in practice or how it seems to employers or ordinary people. As a society, we need to have evidence about how laws really work.”

In ‘Law in the Real World: Improving Our Understanding of How Law Works’, Professor Genn and co-authors Professor Martin Partington and Professor Sally Wheeler show that law schools are dominated by theoretical research: most undergraduates do not have to learn empirical research skills nor produce any kind of dissertation.

There are limited opportunities for legal academics to develop these skills mid-career, leading to ever fewer academics who are competent to supervise doctoral research projects of this kind. The relative decline in social anthropology and social policy, which have historically had a serious engagement with legal issues, is another factor.

Universities can help redress the situation by putting structures in place that encourage crossdisciplinary research and by establishing bursaries and other forms of financial and mentoring support for lawyers at all stages in their career, the report suggests, among other recommendations. Law faculties should consider developing research-focused modules and collaborative teaching with social science departments. Research funding bodies could look at new ways to support crossdisciplinary research projects, particularly given the possible introduction of metrics into the assessment of research after 2008.

To find out more and to read the report in full, follow the links at the bottom of this article.

Image 2: Cover design of ‘Law in the Real World’