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New centre first in Aotearoa to research law and society

Tuesday 30 March 2021 11:35am

Law is not just for the lawyers – so say prominent voices in the growing academic field of law and society, also known as socio-legal studies. Although popular internationally, Otago is the first university in New Zealand to have its own dedicated centre.

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Professor Ben Schonthal

The new Otago Centre for Law and Society Te Pokapū Ture me te Papori ki Ōtākou (OCLaS) will create a multi-disciplinary space to promote and lead discussions about the complex impacts that law has on people’s lives.

With four Co-Directors from Religion, History, and the Faculty of Law at Otago, OCLaS will support collaborative research projects, public events and academic symposia to give insights into the interactions of law, society, religion, culture, history, race, indigenous and human rights, gender and other factors.

Co-Director Professor Ben Schonthal (Religion) says the idea for the Centre came from staff and student discussions on the need for cross-disciplinary investigations.

“There’s a lot that can be learned when one approaches law comparatively, using multiple methods and perspectives. Laws often look one way on the books and function another way in societies. But you need to look outside the courts and legislatures to see that.”

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Dr Bridgette Toy-Cronin

“Bringing together experts from a range of areas will allow us to evaluate law’s claims empirically and historically, and to understand the many types of legal systems that define our world today.”

Co-Director Dr Bridgette Toy-Cronin, Faculty of Law, says the Centre is an exciting development because it will show the many Otago students who take law along with other subjects the “potential for connections between those different areas of study”.

The Centre will also work to help support postgraduate students and Early Career Researchers who are working in socio-legal studies.

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Dr Anna High

Co-Director Dr Anna High, Faculty of Law, says OCLaS will greatly enhance discussion in the field by building national and international connections.

“There’s a vibrant community of people across New Zealand doing important work in the ‘law and society’ space, but our universities lack a bespoke ‘law and society’ centre.

“Law and society is a truly global field. Our Centre makes possible links with leading socio-legal associations and research groups around the world, which will lead to new opportunities for international research collaboration.”

Dr High says the idea that the law is not autonomous but situated in the social context is central to the law and society movement’s research.

“If we want to understand the meaning and function of law within society, an interdisciplinary approach is needed. As one well-known scholar in the field put it, law is ‘too important to be left to the lawyers’."

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Dr Miranda Johnson

History programme lecturer Dr Miranda Johnson, who also co-directs the centre, says the OCLas hopes to showcase the work of Māori and Pacific scholars working on law and society projects and bring indigenous approaches and methods to scholarship.

“This work makes a distinctive contribution to "law and society” scholarship and benefits communities in Aotearoa New Zealand as well as internationally.”

An inaugural seminar and reception to mark the establishment of OCLaS will be held on Thursday, 15 April at 4pm at the Faculty of Law. Further details can be found on the OCLaS website.