Lawyering for Social Change: The Power of the Narrative in Domestic Violence Law Reform
53 Pages Posted: 2 Sep 2009
Date Written: 1993
The role of the narrative or story in legal discourse has been explored and developed in legal scholarship over the last several years. The goals of the various calls for more storytelling in the legal context vary. They generally relate, however, to a desire to move away from exclusive reliance on abstract legal argumentation to persuade. The goals of ‘storytellers‘ are also linked to furthering an understanding of the dynamics of oppression based on race or gender, or both.
The judicial and legislative processes have always included a narrative component. Clinical legal scholarship has also explored the critical role of narrative in client representation, particularly in interviewing and counseling. Recently, however, scholars seeking methods to make the law more responsive to those historically unrepresented in lawmaking have argued for a more explicit use of the narrative to highlight the human concerns in a given legal issue. Others have built upon the work of these scholars to explore the specific ways in which legal storytelling can accomplish law reform goals. Most recently, a related body of scholarship has begun to develop which seeks to critique the value of narratives in both clarifying legal issues and persuading legal decision-makers to reform the law. Can stories persuade legal decision-makers to act in a particular way by ‘creat(ing) a bridge across gaps in experience and thereby elicit empathic understanding(?)‘
This Article seeks to respond to that question. It begins with a brief examination of the impact of law reform campaigns of the last twenty-five years aimed at eliminating race and gender discrimination. There is general consensus that many of the law reform efforts on behalf of women and people of color have failed to produce the full measure of positive change expected from the new laws. This Article suggests that the gap between goals and results may be explained in part by the deficiencies in the legal discourse surrounding the process of achieving legal change.
This Article then examines the legal story's potential as a key element in social change strategy by exploring the specific role it has played in domestic violence law reform. Domestic violence is a particularly useful lens through which we may examine much broader questions about whether and how the law can affect social change. Issues surrounding domestic violence are critically linked to the oppression of women. Freedom and equality for women can never be achieved without freedom from violence. Domestic violence is also an issue where the legal system's failure to respond effectively seems directly linked to the inability of the predominately male decision- makers to understand the victim's need for protection. It is, therefore, an issue where legal storytelling can help create the kind of empathic understanding needed to produce meaningful reform.
A case study analyzes a series of successful domestic violence law reform campaigns in one jurisdiction over the last decade. This ‘history of storytelling‘ gives an empirical backdrop to the theories advanced in recent scholarship about the power of the narrative in eliciting empathic understanding on the part of legal decision-makers. It provides a vivid example of a successful practical application of the theoretical work of feminist and critical race scholars. Advocates' decision to place greater and greater reliance on narratives from victims to persuade decision-makers played a significant role in achieving much-needed law reform. The lessons of this law reform campaign have value and application as strategies which can work in other law reform efforts. This analysis of these law reform campaigns also clarifies the ways in which narratives persuade and function in arguments for feminist or other legal change.
Keywords: narrative, legal discourse, legal scholarship, storytelling, social change, legal reform, race discrimination, gender discrimination, women, people of color, domestic violence, case studies, critical race scholarship
JEL Classification: K19, K39, K49, I19, I39
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation