Law on Trial 2015: Lives that slide out of view

This post was contributed by Kinnari Bhatt

Law on TrialI am excited to attend any seminar examining the critical ethical discourse of our time: poverty. So, I was happy to attend Professor Adam Geary’s inaugural lecture examining three very unlikely bedfellows: poverty, law and welfare.

To me, his seminar foregrounds themes of structural and endemic poverty, alienation and judicial indifference which resonate strongly in our era of recession, with its hallmark of increased poverty.

Falling outside privileged categories

The seminar provided an ethical critique of the jurisprudential turn away from social concerns, poverty and suffering. Traditional jurisprudential thought restricts its vision to the substance of the law (law as a command and legal categorisations) which deny any relationship with questions of justice.

The law itself becomes blind to social concern choosing instead, to privilege the sanctity of contract and private property, thus providing legal structure to the laissez faire hand of the free market in which judges only see ‘clients’ not fellow human beings.

In this analysis the right to earn property becomes absolutely fundamental to human liberty and freedom, making certain lives which fall outside of the law’s privileged categories, slide out of view thus reasserting their alienation. Those that slide out of view are typically the poor, marginalised and downtrodden. The law’s closest articulation of poverty is found in human rights but, as Professor Geary discussed, these rights are a weak substitute for engaging in conversations about humanity and its laissez faire principles.

Alienation, experience and solidarity

Professor Geary presented the three core themes of his paper: alienation, experience and solidarity. He started by discussing Marx’s view that life under conditions of production work to separate us from each other: a state characterised by structural and endemic poverty.

The lecture explored the works of political figures from Jack London, through to George Orwell and the poverty lawyers of the 1960s and 70s. These figures chose to submerge themselves in the experience of being poor: from Orwell joining the poor in his loathing of imperialism to Harvard Law Graduates choosing to engage with people in Harlem instead of financially lucrative clients on Wall Street.

Opening our eyes

Professor Louis Wolcher provided a comment and discussion of Professor Geary’s lecture, discussing how the first task in any ethical approach to law is to make us open our eyes to fellow human beings.

He quoted the Latin phrase ‘What the eye cannot see the heart cannot grieve over’ urging those in positions of privilege to throw off their myopic glasses blinding them to the plight of those that fall outside of positivist law’s substantive categories.

The second task is to be thoughtful about the ways in which the privileged speak on behalf of those they wish to aid. This question has no obvious solution and requires us to be mindful of our own privileged position, motivations and warns against the tyrannical descent into a superior and all too familiar narrative of charity, pity and dependency.

The seminar again demonstrated the Law School’s interest in compassion, social justice and debate.

Watch the lecture video and listen to the podcast

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