The State of Canadian Socio-legal Research

In 1979, SSHRC received only two applications for funding from legal scholars. Concerned about the state of an academic discipline that was apparently disinterested in research, and with the endorsement of the CALT and the Committee of Canadian Law Deans, SSHRC appointed the Consultative Group on Research and Education in Law to investigate. The CGREL report, Law and Learning (1983), advocated the intensification of scholarly activities in Canadian law faculties. More specifically, it sought to legitimize and reinforce trends towards socio-legal teaching and research that had been developing in Canadian universities since the 1960s.

What is the state of socio-legal research in Canada three decades after Law and Learning? Annie Bunting and I have recently published an article that provides some answers to this question. On the one hand, our article can be read as good news by those who support this kind of research. A sampling of some 1100 articles published in English-language academic law journals over three decades since Law and Learning reveals that the percentage of articles with a socio-legal orientation has increased from 29% (1983) to 47% (2012). The trend in French-language journals is almost identical — 25% (1983) to 46% (2012). The Canadian Law and Society Association and its journal (founded in 1986), several specialized law journals and general interest social science journals such as the Canadian Journal of Political Science have all helped to stimulate this growth in socio-legal scholarship, as have university presses that maintain special law or law and society lists (notably University of Toronto Press and UBC Press).

Funding for research that appears in these publications comes from various sources: SSHRC, law commissions and commissions of inquiry, organizations such as the Osgoode Society for Legal History and, of course, universities themselves. Most of the scholars who publish in the field are based in law faculties. However, free-standing graduate and undergraduate law and society programs have been established in a number of universities and provide an hospitable intellectual environment for scholars who are not engaged in educating future legal professionals.

On the other hand, there is also reason to question whether the thirty-year growth trajectory of socio legal scholarship can be sustained. The return of legal fundamentalism, epitomized by recent aggressive moves by the Federation of Law Societies of Canada to control law school curriculums and pedagogy, is likely to force them to divert their resources away from research towards professional training and to shift the focus of their faculty members towards publishing books and articles more explicitly designed for consumption by the practicing bar. The declining enthusiasm of governments for law reform, and social reform more generally, is also likely to trim socio-legal research budgets and to deprive socio-legal scholarship of the legitimacy it derived from its contributions to the reform of the legal system and of society. And of course the targeting of research funding to projects that are “practical” and/or based on “partnerships” is bad news for scholars whose work tends to be seen as subversive.

Harry W. Arthurs is former Dean of Osgoode Hall Law School and University Professor Emeritus and President Emeritus of York University.

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