LawTransform – researching law as an instrument of social change

The Centre Director, Siri Gloppen, is Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Bergen and a senior researcher at CMI.

Bergen hosts many researchers who work on lawfare, or the strategic use of law as a political tool. The last 15 years, researchers from CMI and different faculties and departments at the University of Bergen, have worked together on a number of projects exploring legal mobilization and the social and political role of courts and law and in the global South.

Many countries have seen a rights revolution in recent years. Legal mobilization have become increasingly important almost all over the world. Across the globe, people go to court to claim their right to health, education or same-sex marriage – while others mobilize courts and legislatures to criminalize abortion, prostitution or homosexual practice.  Why is this? One part of the answer may be that new constitutions and treaties have expanded citizens’ rights, and many areas of life have become more densely regulated, leaving courts and administrative bodies with more power, but we don’t know enough about issues like: Who engages in legal mobilization? When is going to court effective? What are the broader and more long-term effects? The formation of this center represents a desire to understand the growing importance of law, and develop better methods for establishing the effects of legal strategies.

There is a long tradition of research on the role of legal institutions and legal mobilization in the US and in some European countries. Less is known about these processes in Latin America, Asia and Africa. In Norway there is a growing interest in socio-legal research, but the academic environment is fragmented. LawTransform aims to stimulate and consolidate research on these issues in Norway and contribute to innovative research in the field globally.

Siri Gloppen stresses Interdisciplinarity as a key component of the centre.

–         We bring together people from various fields including lawyers, political scientists, social anthropologists and natural scientists. We depend on a wide variety of perspectives if we are to understand these complex processes.

Driving social change
A range of LawTransform projects explore how legal norms and institutions can change society and politics through formal processes as well as through advocacy.

–          Legal mobilization from below is increasing across the globe, including by marginalized communities who fail to be heard in the political process. In some cases legal mobilization aims at concrete goals for particular individuals or groups, for example to prevent the building of a hydroelectric dam threatening the environment and the land rights, welfare and culture of indigenous people living in an area, explains Gloppen. But the goals can also be more general, for example improved health care for prisoners, gender justice, or improved climate policies. In some cases parties from different sides of the ideological spectrum use legal arenas to fight battles over highly morally charged issues such as sexual and reproductive rights (homosexuality, abortion etc), creating special challenges for the courts. The projects and activities in this thematic area seek to understand the dynamics that lead to legal mobilization in particular contexts and around particular issues. What makes legal mobilization more successful in certain cases than in other? What are the intended and unintended effects of such mobilisation?

But also governments use the law strategically, for example when rules and laws themselves are altered to achieve a particular societal goal (legal engineering). Public authorities change constitutions, laws and regulations with the aim of inducing or preventing certain developments. Criminal law is made and changed to control and prevent crime. Constitutions are reformed to provide for a broader range of rights, including welfare right to secure social citizenship. Law and legal mechanism are also important tools for addressing problems of violence and societal conflict. New constitutions are often made after periods of crisis, to prevent the evils of the past from re-emerging and to steer society towards a better future. Transitional justice mechanisms address past human rights abuses as well as constitutional reform and legal empowerment of local communities and vulnerable groups.

–          The widespread belief in the effectiveness of these strategies rests on a relatively week empirical foundation, argues Gloppen. We lack good methods for systematically assessing not only the effects of constitutions, and transitional justice mechanims but also of different forms of legislation and regulation, argues Gloppen. A key aim of the centre is to develop new quantitative and qualitative approaches to investigate effects of law.

LawTranform researchers are also engaged efforts to understand what is it that makes judges independent,  and what makes courts – and individual judges – behave and rule the way they do. This is a large scholarly field, but most of what is written concerns the USA or the EU.

–         We seek to broaden this base by studying courts and judges in parts of the world that have received less attention (such as Norway and Latin-America), and by refining the methodological tools. We will produce practically relevant insights.