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Law and change: Scottish legal heroes
Law and change: Scottish legal heroes

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2.2.4 Social order

Law is a key ingredient in the way society is organised and operates. Society comprises a complex network of institutions, customs, values and social and economic forces which determine how people interact and live together. Within a society there are considerable differences in individual ability, education and wealth. Some of these are the result of birth; others are due to inequality of opportunity. The question is whether law helps to reinforce the status quo and protect entrenched interests in society, or whether it acts as a force for social mobility. This is a controversial and complex issue. The concept of social justice is concerned with the inequalities of economic wealth in society, and with encouraging social mobility and equality of opportunity.

Law is, in many ways, an instrument of the government of the day. Government policy in areas such as education, employment, taxation, social benefits and the economy affects whether the laws which put the policy into practice are socially or economically progressive. Law has the potential to affect social order so that it is more inclusive and fair, as is demonstrated by the way in which changes in the law have promoted equality over the last 100 years.

Box 1 Reflections on the role of law in the progress of equality

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, few people in the United Kingdom had the right to vote. In 1884, male property owners were enfranchised; however, men who were not property owners and women could not vote. The Representation of the People Act 1918 gave all males over 21 the right to vote and gave women the right to vote if they were 30 years or over and a property owner or a graduate voting in a university constituency. Women’s voting rights were still not the same as men’s and full electoral equality (known as universal suffrage) did not occur until 1928.

Over the last 50 years it has become unlawful to discriminate against another person on grounds including race, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, disability, gender reassignment, sex, pregnancy and maternity, religion or belief, marriage and civil partnership and age in their access to education, employment and services. The principle of equal pay was also introduced; the law prohibits discriminatory treatment between women and men in their terms and conditions of employment.

However, inequality persists. Women and minority groups are still under-represented in areas such as politics and business. It is evident that legal intervention is not enough on its own and other social and economic factors also affect people’s opportunities.

Since World War II, the UK has developed a state welfare system which provides access to education, health care and social benefits. These schemes are regulated by complex legal and administrative frameworks governing the provision of, and access to, these services and benefits. There are frequent complaints about the fairness of access to these services. For instance, there are often allegations made in the media and by interest groups of the existence of a postcode lottery for access to life-saving treatment and drugs.