Law, Race and Brexit Britain

This blog was contributed by Devin Frank, a graduate of the School of Law at Birkbeck. He will soon be returning to the College as a PhD candidate and part-time seminar tutor.

centreforraceandlaw

Credit: Cole Peters 2017.

On 15 May 2017 students and academics gathered for the launch of Birkbeck’s new research initiative, the Centre for Research on Race and Law, focusing on Law, Race and Brexit Britain.

After an introduction to the new Centre by the Acting Dean of the Law School, Dr Stewart Motha, and the co-director of the Centre, Dr Sarah Keenan, five speakers discussed how conceptions of race permeate law, politics and policy — not only in Britain, but across numerous jurisdictions.

At the heart of the discussion was an underlying paradox: conceptions of race and racism manifest through law, while law in itself is often a last defense against racism. Reflecting on my own experience working as a caseworker and paralegal, nowhere is this paradox more apparent than within the immigration systems of the Western world, particularly in the UK, US and Australia. Having endured the horrors of having to read and engage with Home Office refusal letters, it is abundantly clear that racism is not only tolerated within the diameters of immigration decision making, it is actively encouraged. When faced with a letter claiming that an individual’s immigration application is refused based on a legally accepted notion of race, the response of any lawyer is then to plead with the law, often in the form of an appeal or judicial review, to seek a legal remedy to the artificial and racist conception of law that allowed for injustice in the first place.

After Professor Patricia Tuitt, Executive Dean of the Law School, skillfully laid the foundation for considering how race and racism permeates all institutions, including that of law, the next four speakers showed how race matters in political discourse, immigration controls, EU trade policy and Brexit Britain. Tuitt’s opening talk had reminded us that the colonial dogma of race still infects the bureaucratic mechanisms of all aspects of society, including the university – a critique from which Birkbeck and the Law School are by no means immune.

Professor Gurminder Bhambra (University of Warwick) aptly highlighted the need to ‘get history right’ in order for concepts to have useful meanings — something that was an abysmal failure in the Brexit campaign. Bhambra began by examining the Brexit referendum data to debunk the myth that the Leave result was the resounding voice of ‘the left behind’ white working class. Rather, Bhambra showed that the vote to Leave was determined by property owners, pensioners, and well-off white middle class voters.

race-and-law-blog

The rhetoric of ‘taking back control’ lacks any kind of historical or political reality: Britain is not and never has been a nation, rather it is an imperial polity. British citizenship only came to refer primarily to people living in Britain in 1981, as this citizenship was formerly shared between Britain and its colonies. The British psychosis brought on by a fear of non-white migration goes to highlight the need for research initiatives such as the Centre for Research on Race and Law to further facilitate discussion based on sound research, with dignity and respect.

Following the EU referendum, it became all too common to ignore the underlining causes, divert attention away from blatant racism and xenophobia and pose a simpler question: ‘what about the economy?’. Professor Diamond Ashiagbor (Institute of Advanced Legal Studies) discussed the relationship between economic inequality, race and global trade in the context of ‘Empire 2.0’, encapsulated in Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox’s, plan to negotiate new trade deals with Commonwealth countries in order to compensate for the EU trade that will be lost with Brexit. Ashiagbor argued that leaving the EU against the backdrop of rewriting/forgetting histories of empire, migration and race will exacerbate the internal economic equalities caused by open markets and global trade.

Drawing on ideas stemming from the political economist Karl Polanyi, Ashiagbor argued that markets only work without destroying society if they are constrained, and if social redistribution is facilitated. Pre-Brexit, such constraints and redistribution were put in place by domestic British law and also by EU law. The irony of Brexit racism, Ashiagbor argued, is that much of the labour migration upon which Britain has relied and against which the Leave campaign rallied, has long been fuelled by European plunder of the rest of the world. The sense of ‘the left behind’ voting for Brexit fails to capture the reality that the industrialised working class (both white and non-white) in the UK has long been supported by extraction from colonised states. Only through the plunder of resources and exploitation of labour from the Global South has the UK been able to build its welfare state.

Professor Iyiola Solanke (University of Leeds) sought to address the question: what of the forgotten groups that will be affected by Brexit? In the news and within mainstream discussion many rightly pose the question: ‘what status will EU citizens have in the UK and what status will UK citizens have in Europe?’. While this is a pertinent question, Solanke noted that it fails to address the situation of third country nationals, such as spouses and family members of European citizens in the UK, and so-called ‘Zambrano families’ (those who care for EU/UK citizens). While it seems likely that predominately white men, coming from the United States and earning high incomes working in London’s financial centres will find the legal categories to remain in the UK regardless of the ultimate Brexit deal, the future status of black parents from Nigeria, Ghana and Jamaica currently in the UK caring for their British children is much more ominous.

Finally Dr. Nadine El-Enany, Senior Law Lecturer and Co-Director of Centre for Research on Race and Law spoke about the importance of taking critical race scholarship seriously. With explicitly racist far-right movements on the rise in many parts of the world (including but not limited to the Brexit and Trump victories), El-Enany argued that it is more important than ever for legal academics not only to offer analyses which critique the role of law in upholding racism, but also to be creative about the strategic use of law for immediate survival of the most vulnerable in society. Drawing Mari Matsuda’s work, El-Enany argued that we have much to learn from critical race feminists who have written about the need to be strategic in relation to law in order to survive in a structurally violent world.  El-Enany recounted that during her own PhD studies she was told that race was not a useful analytical concept for scholarship on migration law, and that her intellectual development and psyche were significantly hindered by this falsity for many years. The new research Centre will lead the way, and provide a much needed space, to support the study of the relationship between race and law.

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Cameras in the court

This post was contributed by Ruth Saunders, who attended the LSE Law and Birkbeck School of Law Judicial Images Project public lecture on Wednesday 13 April

‘From Oscar Pistorius to Reality TV: the implications of using the courtroom as a television studio’ was the title of last Wednesday’s well-attended lecture from the Judicial Images Network Project, a joint project of Birkbeck School of Law and LSE Law which brings together scholars across disciplines and continents to explore issues surrounding the production, regulation and consumption of judicial images.

The lecture featured speakers with extensive experience in the issues that arise from the use of cameras in courtrooms. Justice Dikgang Moseneke, Deputy Chief Justics of Constitutional Court of South Africa, took to the stage first to discuss the experience of, and issues arising from, televising the trial of Oscar Pistorius.

Describing the concept of open justice as a key and now well-established principle in post apartheid South Africa, Justice Moseneke discussed how the trial of Oscar Pistorius created new ways in which people could access and assess justice.

Dr Jur Ruth Herz

Dr Jur Ruth Herz

Emphasising that ‘democracy dies behind closed doors’, Justice Moseneke also acknowledged that televising the courtroom could foster a dynamic of intimidation for defendants and witnesses – but it would, he said, be more reliable than a journalist’s perception of events.

But ultimately, he finished, ‘we, the media and courts, share a common goal. We want the public to know and to assess what we do’.

Next, Visiting Professor at Birkbeck School of Law Ruth Herz, formally a Judge in Cologne and the star of popular German courtroom based reality TV show Das Jugendgericht (Youth Court), reflected on her four year experience in television.

Giving a frank recollection of her experiences, Ruth described her motivations for participating in the TV show to tackle the veil of secrecy that surrounds the court system in Germany. What she found, however, was that the presence of the camera with the focus on lighting, position and angle, did not create transparency.

Media, she says, speaks a different language, and is motivated first and foremost by money which informed casting choices and the types of cases heard.

These factors all worked against her attempts to use the reality TV court show as a useful educational tool to show viewers how justice in the courtroom works. She echoed the concerns raised by Justice Moseneke that Courts have a primary responsibility to pursue justice.

Lord Dyson, Master of the Rolls and Head of Civil Justice in England and Wales, closed the discussion commenting on his own experience of cameras in the courtroom. In the Supreme Court, Lord Dyson said, he was unaware and unaffected by the discreet cameras.

Professor Leslie Moran

Professor Leslie Moran

The Crown court pilot to introduce cameras in the court is proceeding carefully, he said, to minimise risks to the fairness of the trial and, he also described, a ‘duty of care to protect the vulnerable’.

Birkbeck’s Professor Leslie Moran brought together questions from the audience which resulted in a lively discussion.

brought together questions from the audience which resulted in a lively discussion.

In closing the event he encouraged all to become avid viewers not only of the UK Supreme Court summary judgment videos but also the UK’s first reality TV court show, ‘Judge Rinder’.

He explained, ‘the future of cameras in courts is already taking shape on our TV screen. We need to take it seriously and debate it further if it is to best serve the needs of open justice.’

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Camberwell man reaches milestone in legal dream

A Camberwell resident celebrated an important step in his legal education this week when he graduated from Birkbeck.

Chukwunwikezarramu (Zarra) Okumephuna on his graduation day

Chukwunwikezarramu (Zarra) Okumephuna on his graduation day

On Wednesday (20 April), Chukwunwikezarramu (Zarra) Okumephuna received his Master of Law degree at the college’s formal ceremony in Senate House, Bloomsbury.

The 39-year-old Bethwin Road

resident enrolled at Birkbeck following his completion of a Bachelor’s Law degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), however he had concerns about the expense of a further degree.

“Getting a Master’s degree in Law was very important to me as I want to progress on to a PhD, but the cost nearly deterred me,” Zarra said.

“Fortunately, Birkbeck’s payment flexibility and study pattern ensured that I finished within one year. I successfully finished the programme via payment by installment without getting in any debt.”

Since moving to London 10 years ago from his home town of Nteje, Nigeria, Zarra has held a strong in interest in Law.

He said: “The reason I chose to concentrate on Constitutional Law – focusing on Islamisation of the Political Process in Pakistan – and Criminology during my LLM is because of my ambition to eventually work in either the educational, charity or political sector, as an academic, policy adviser or a parliamentary aide.

“It is this all-encompassing and ecumenical nature of Law as a discipline that attracted me towards it and I have no regret in doing that, even though it might take a while to fulfill my ambition.”

Chukwunwikezarramu (Zarra) Okumephuna

Chukwunwikezarramu (Zarra) Okumephuna

During his studies at Birkbeck, Zarra volunteered with the British Refugee Council on the Development Desk, which involved engaging with refugees and other stakeholders in the sector including donors. At the college, he also served as the student representative for his course, and held down a job in retail. Juggling these numerous commitments was hard, but worthwhile, he explained.

He said: “The fact that I balanced both my work and study is the reason I succeeded in the programme. I was able to translate my work experiences into my studies and that was very rewarding.”

This week, Zarra joined nearly 200 fellow postgraduate students from the college’s School of Law at a morning graduation ceremony held in Senate House’s Beveridge Hall.

He said: “I’m delighted to have made this achievement. It was my dream as a young man to do this and I am pleased that today my dream is a reality.”

Looking ahead, Zarra plans to undertake an MPhil/PhD researching the relationship between law and religion in Pakistan.

Hear Zarra talk about his experience at Birkbeck:

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Law on Trial: The End(s) of the Legal Academy

This post was contributed by Andrew Youngson, media and publicity officer for Birkbeck, University of London

Law on TrialThe School of Law’s Law on Trial 2015 came to a close on Friday 19 June with an exploration of the Legal Academy – or rather what its role is at a time when its ends and purport are increasingly being put under the microscope.

Organised by Prof Peter Fitzpatrick, the workshop featured presentations from a trio of legal academics – and each responded to by thoughts from a further three discussants.

From the high pressured environments of the legal professional, to the complexities of ‘legitimised’ violence, to an examination of the pre- and post-war structures of the university, the afternoon event offered plenty food for thought for the gathered audience of legal academics, professionals and students.

Wellbeing in the Legal Profession

The trio of presentations was begun by Prof Richard Collier of Newcastle University who discussed his recent paper – and ongoing research – in the area of Wellbeing in the Legal Profession. During the course of his talk, Prof Collier argued that not only is there considerable evidence that interest in wellbeing in the legal profession is growing; there are multiple strands to it, including:

  • The study of wellbeing in the profession – recent articles in this area have looked at the hyper-competitive environment and the implications on social connectedness and subjective wellbeing of the lawyer
  • The impact of legal training and education programmes on wellbeing – with ever-growing pressures being put on students being reflected in an increasing uptake of on-campus wellbeing and counselling services
  • The proliferation of wellbeing programmes being run in law firms, which underlines a growing recognition of poor wellbeing in the legal profession, and the desire to tackle it

Prof Collier then critiqued these emergent areas of study, and highlighted the discourses arising from them. Among them, he noted an ‘individualised discourse’, in which attention is directed away from wider structural, political and economic forces i.e. wellbeing as a personal, not a political issue.

A further over-arching theme was the commodification of wellbeing, and how it is considered by many to be another artefact of the neoliberalist world – where ‘wellness’ is considered important primarily because it is a vital part of the profitability of the law firm.

Future research, he concluded, could examine how normalised the hyper-competitiveness/wellbeing situation is, and to what extent the legal profession is now a field only survivable by an elite class who can successfully self-manage its pressures.

In her response to Prof Collier’s presentation, Prof Fiona Macmillan questioned a university’s complicity in laying the ground work for, and perpetuating, the high-pressured environments of the legal profession.

The Law School and the Force of Law

Next up was a presentation by Birkbeck’s Prof Patricia Tuitt, executive dean of the School of Law. The relationship between law and violence, she explained, has underpinned much of her work.

Reflecting this field of interest, Prof Tuitt presented her thoughts and findings as outlined in her recent paper, which explores:

  • Walter Benjamin’s 1921 essay, Critique of Violence, in which the German philosopher contemplates the seeming paradox of an exercise of a legal right being construed as an act of violence – subject, potentially, to the emergency jurisdiction of the state.

And its applicability to a 21st Century incident:

  • In which an American law school dean recently wrote to her students, urging them to take part in protests in Baltimore – even offering to defer an exam for those who help people on the street with legal advice (read the Washington Post article)

Examining this incident within the boundaries of Benjamin’s proposition on sanctioned vs unsanctioned violence, Prof Tuitt noted that the dean’s actions could have been construed as an extortionate use of legal rights. However, she also noted that Benjamin’s Critique doesn’t adequately address the 21st Century legal system, such as the impact of human rights principles.

In his response to Prof Tuitt’s presentation, Dr Eddie Bruce-Jones, continued the conversation on the matters of the distinction between the academy and the legal system; what this might mean for the end of the legal academy; and asked whether – given the topics under analysis – the State needs the University to stay alive, or whether it merely keeps the University barely alive for its own legitimacy.

The Structure of a University

Closing the presentations for the afternoon, Birkbeck’s Soo Tian Lee examined the historical structure of a university from the perspectives of:

  • Instrumentalism
  • Idealism
  • The University-in-itself
  • Forms of life

In discussing each structure, Soo Tian examined the contexts of the university during the post-war consensus era, and the rise of the neoliberalist university in which it has become “subordinated to narrow economic goals”.

Instrumentalism and idealism are often seen as opposed, Soo Tian explained. However, he finds this to be “a false dichotomy”, and instead proposed “a relational structure” in which both instrumentalist and idealist principles co-exist. Also within this relational structure are what he described as ‘Forms of life’ – i.e. the individual habits of an institution which, though not always easy to identity, exist nontheless.

In summation, Soo Tian offered what he considered “an uncomfortable conclusion”, in that the objective of such a study such as his, can only be to lay out the proposed structure of the post-war educational institution and let it be discussed.

If an overly neat or definitive conclusion is found, he explained, “it should be killed immediately”. “Unflinching rightness is to be approached with caution”, he concluded.

Soo tian’s presentation was responded to by discussant Dr Matthew Charles, of the University of Westminster. Dr Charles spoke of the university as a special kind of community, and examined it within the context – and limitations – of Kantian theory on antinomy.

The workshop’s final half hour comprised an open Q&A opportunity between the panellists and audience members.

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