Beyond Ignorance and Complacency: Robert Stevens’ Journey Through Lawyers and the Courts
3 Pages Posted: 13 Dec 2009
Date Written: December 7, 2009
Brian Abel-Smith and Robert Stevens’ Lawyers and the Courts (LATC), published in 1967, was the first major critical social history of the English legal system from the industrial revolution to modern times (1750-1965). It has proved matchless. It is the definitive book in the field, and its core arguments remain largely unchallenged more than forty years after its publication. Challenging the dominant traditions of doctrinal legal scholarship and lawyers’ legal history by emphasising the importance of serious empirical research on current problems, it offered a less reverential alternative to the prevailing orthodoxies of the day and asked whether England’s legal services and legal education had developed in a way that best served the public interest.
This paper examines how and why LATC came to be written, its reception and its larger significance. It addresses Robert Stevens’ intellectual trajectory, thereby, providing a window on the history of legal education and thought in England during the 1950’s and ‘60’s and the significance of the United States and Africa to those dissatisfied with England’s dominant tradition of legal formalism. It demonstrates both the coercive structures by which the legal profession sought to silence criticism of the status quo and some of the ways in which Stevens’ projects and ideas for realizing them are still important for the education of present day lawyers, scholars and law reformers.
Part One begins with a brief overview of the principal arguments and concerns of LATC. Parts Two and Three seek to historicize LATC. Part Two places Stevens in the context of the personal and intellectual influences of his formative years, 1940-65, and relevant legal-political preoccupations: including the importance of history to his thinking; his disappointment with Oxford legal education; the confines of English legal scholarship, the legal profession and legal culture; the excitement of American legal education and legal practice, in particular, his postgraduate studies at Yale Law School and his encounter with Myres McDougall (1906-1998) and post-Realism; the importance of his experience of teaching at the University of East Africa in Dar es Salaam; and the vital influence of Richard Titmuss (1907–1973) and Brian Abel-Smith (1926-1996), two pioneering British social policy researchers, leading policy advisors and chroniclers of and campaigners against social injustice. Part Three links Stevens’ work to England in the heady days of the early-mid 1960’s, a period when change, and the possibility of effecting political, cultural and social change, was “in the air”. Part Four considers LATC’s controversial reception when it was published in 1967 and seeks to clarify why it encountered fierce opposition and the intellectual tradition that LATC reflected, sustained and promoted. The concluding section briefly considers LATC’s impact on and significance for the fields of legal history and legal services.
This essay makes extensive use of interviews with Robert Stevens and archival research and is published in a special issue of the International Journal of the Legal Profession on the work of Robert Stevens, the other contributors being: Richard Abel, Tony Bradney, Fiona Cownie, Bill Felstiner, Alan Paterson and William Twining.
Keywords: Legal education, legal profession, England, legal formalism, Oxford University, F.H. Lawson, Yale Law School, post-Realism, Myres McDougall, Richard Titmuss, Brian Abel-Smith, Robert Stevens, law in context, judges, courts, legal liberalism, legal history, historiography, London School of Economics
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