Siri Gloppen is Director of the new Centre on Law and Social Transformation

Law is increasingly center stage for political battles.  Across the globe, people are going to court to claim their right to health or education, to fight for their right to engage in sex work or same-sex relationships – while others mobilize courts and legislatures to criminalize prostitution or homosexual practice.

Located in Bergen, Center on Law and Social Transformation launched Friday 22 August, aims to bring together scholars, students and practitioners across institutions and academic fields focusing on law as an instrument of social change. The center is a cooperation between CMI and the University of Bergen, but is a virtual global centre with fellows from all over the world.

Bergen hosts many researchers who work on lawfare issues, or the strategic use of law as a political tool. The last 15 years, CMI and the Department for Comparative Politics at the University of Bergen, have worked together on a number of projects exploring legal mobilization and the social and political role of courts in the global South. Siri Gloppen, Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Bergen and a researcher at CMI, directs the new center

--Many countries have seen a rights revolution in recent years. Legal mobilization have become increasingly important almost all over the world. Why is this? One part of the answer may be that new constitutions and treaties have expanded citizens’ rights, and many areas of life have become more densely regulated, leaving courts and administrative bodies with more power, but we don’t know enough about issues like: Who engages in legal mobilization? When is going to court effective and smart? What are the broader and more long-term effects? The formation of this center represents a desire to understand the growing importance of law, says Gloppen.

There is a long tradition of research on the role of legal institutions and legal mobilization in the US and in some European countries. Less is known about these processes in Latin America, Asia and Africa. In Norway there is a growing interest in socio-legal research, but the academic environment is fragmented. Centre on Law and Social Transformation aims to stimulate and consolidate research on these issues in Norway and contribute to innovative research in the field globally.

Driving social change

The centre is organised around four main themes: Legal Mobilisation; Legal Engineering; Transforming Conflict and Functioning of Courts. Legal mobilisation explores how legal norms and institutions can change society and politics through formal processes as well as through advocacy.

-          Legal mobilization in some cases aims at concrete goals for particular individuals or groups, for example to prevent the building of a hydroelectric dam threatening the environment and the land rights, welfare and culture of indigenous people living in an area. But the goals can also be more general, for example improved health care for prisoners, gender justice, or improved climate policies. In some cases parties from different sides of the ideological spectrum use legal arenas to fight battles over highly morally charged issues such as sexual and reproductive rights (homosexuality, abortion etc), creating special challenges for the courts. The projects and activities in this thematic area seek to understand the dynamics that lead to legal mobilization in particular contexts and around particular issues. What makes legal mobilization more successful in certain cases than in other? What are the intended and unintended effects of such mobilisation?

Legal engineering looks at when rules and laws themselves are altered to achieve a particular societal goal. Public authorities change constitutions, laws and regulations with the aim of inducing (or preventing) some form of social change. Criminal law is made and changed to control and prevent crime. New constitutions are often made after periods of crisis, to prevent the evils of the past from re-emerging and to steer society towards a better future. Many older constitutions have been reformed to provide for a broader range of rights, including welfare right to secure social citizenship, says Gloppen:

-          We lack good methods for systematically assessing not only the effects of constitutions, but also of different forms of legislation and regulation. Thus a key aim of the activities within this thematic area is to develop new quantitative and qualitative approaches to investigate effects of law.

Transforming conflict is the third thematic area. Law and legal mechanism are increasingly seen as important tools for addressing problems of violence and societal conflict. Transitional justice mechanisms address past human rights abuses as well as constitutional reform and legal empowerment of local communities and vulnerable groups.

-          The widespread belief in the effectiveness of these strategies rests on a relatively week empirical foundation, argues Gloppen. There is limited systematic knowledge about the various types of effects, and the projects and activities within this thematic area seek to broaden this knowledge base, as well as sharpen the methodological tools for assessing the effects.  

What is it that makes judges independent - and what makes courts – and individual judges – behave and rule the way they do in different types of cases? This is a large scholarly field, but most of what is written concerns the USA or the EU. 

-         The projects and activities within this thematic area seek to broaden this base by studying courts and judges in parts of the world that have received less attention (such as Norway and Latin-America), and by refining the methodological tools. We will produce practically relevant insights.

Interdisciplinarity is key component of the new centre.

-         We bring together people from various fields including lawyers, political scientists, social anthropologists and natural scientists. We depend on a wide variety of perspectives if we are to understand these complex processes.

IMG 3863 Siri Gloppen is Director of the new Center for Law and Social Transformation