3 What is law?
3.1 The idea of law
As with social work, our ideas about law are shaped through a series of images and encounters, and these affect our expectations of law as an area of study. They also have an impact on our reaction to legal intervention, which we have seen is relevant to social work practice.
The following activity asks you to think about the meaning of law and your own impressions of this subject.
Activity 4: What is law?
Write down any words, images or phrases which you associate with ‘law’. The pictures above are there to help you, but do not feel constrained by them, and try to focus on what law means to you personally.
Once you have compiled a list, see if you can separate your observations into positive and negative attributes. For example, if you associate law with ‘tradition’, or ‘complexity’, do you think these are good or bad things?
There is no right answer to this activity, which will probably have provoked a range of responses and ideas about law. Your future studies will either reinforce or challenge these initial views, but it is important to record your first impressions and to recognise that you have pre-existing knowledge and personal values which will affect your engagement with this course.
Research suggests that social work students can feel ‘daunted and apprehensive or even fearful of the subject, its perceived specialist nature and technical jargon’ (Braye et al., 2005, p. 150). There is also evidence that some prospective law students in Scotland are put off by assumptions of privilege, conservatism and elitism traditionally associated with the legal profession, and have little actual understanding of what legal education involves (Anderson et al., 2003). If you included the words ‘difficult’ or ‘boring’ on your list, you will not have been alone.
Law has an image problem which, whilst not entirely undeserved, needs to be addressed if we are concerned about inequality of access to law and the power that an understanding of law can confer. This has clear implications for promoting social justice, which is fundamental to social work.
Any attempt to provide a definitive answer to the question ‘What is law?’ has the potential to mislead, because legal theorists continue to debate its meaning. At first this may seem unsatisfactory and difficult to comprehend, given our common-sense understandings of law, but it is an important learning point which will help you to develop a more sophisticated appreciation of the relationship between law and social work. One way to grasp this idea is to recognise that negative views of law are directly affected by the meaning given to this subject. For example, the view that law is technical and difficult is usually based on the belief that studying law involves remembering an endless series of rules. Social work students have expressed concern that there is not enough time to learn all of the legal provisions which relate to social work practice; they often lack confidence in what they perceive as their ‘legal knowledge’ as a result (Braye et al., 2005). If, however, their concept of law was different, for example because they understood that the content of law changes over time and is not a fixed body of rules that they are expected to digest, their view of law might be more favourable. This would also affect their understanding of what they need to know about the subject. They might focus on learning the underlying principles – how to find relevant law and apply it in practice and keep abreast of legal developments – rather than committing whole areas to memory. Although this course will introduce you to a range of legal rules relating to social work, and aims to familiarise you with their content, it is more important that you gain a practical knowledge of law and its uses.
Figure 2 provides a simplified outline of everyday meanings attributed to law. You should be able to fit most of your observations from the last activity into these categories. We will use it to consider how different ideas of law affect our understanding of law and its relationship to social work practice.