Legal skills and debates in Scotland
Legal skills and debates in Scotland

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Legal skills and debates in Scotland

2.1 The idea of law

Our ideas about law are shaped through the images we have seen and encounters we have. These affect our expectations of law as an area of study, practice and its role in society. They also have an impact on our reaction to legal interventions and legal cases. Law tends to be something we encounter when something has gone awry. The next activity asks you to think about the meaning of law and your own impressions of law.

Activity 2 Perceptions of law

Timing: (Allow 15 minutes)

Write down any words or images you associate with ‘law’. Figures 2 and 3 are there to help you, but do not feel constrained by them, and try to focus on what law means to you personally. Think about where you have come across the law, whether in the media, film, drama, study or personal experience.

Once you have compiled a list, see if you can separate your observations into positive and negative attributes. Is your overall view positive or negative?

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There is no right answer to Activity 2 and its discussion. It was designed to encourage you to think about your own response to the word ‘law’ and any ideas about law you have. Figure 4 has been compiled from the responses we had from students when asked this question.

Described image
Figure 4Responses of some of our students to the law

Your future studies on this course will either reinforce or challenge your initial ideas and impressions. Making a record of your initial impressions enables you to recognise your pre-existing knowledge and your personal values which relate to law.

An understanding of law, the legal system and law's role in society can be empowering. Law however, as mentioned above, has an image problem. This may not be entirely undeserved with the traditional images of lawyers and courtrooms that are often found in the media, in TV dramas and films. Such images can however be a barrier to accessibility to justice and an understanding of the role played by law within society.

A picture of a statue with the symbols of justice, scales and a sword.
Figure 5An image associated with law: justice

You should now watch the following video, in which Professor Simon Lee discusses the importance of keeping an open mind when thinking about the law.

Download this video clip.Video player: Video 1 Professor Simon Lee
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Transcript: Video 1 Professor Simon Lee

Open-mindedness is a very important virtue for law and for life. It's quite difficult to be sure that you are being open minded, and it's easy to see other people being closed-minded when they disagree with you.
So one of the ways in which I've been encouraging students to think about it is by reference to a Scottish politician, Jennie Lee, who was really the founder of The Open University. She created The Open University when she was a minister in Harold Wilson's government. But as a student in Edinburgh in the 1920s, she studied education, literature, history, psychology, and law. It was a little bit like an Open University course in a way.
And you had to do a little project. In psychology she did it. And I've got her handwriting here because it's from the archives of The Open University. And it's called 'An Experiment in Prejudices.' And what she did was to ask - because she was also studying to be a teacher, studying education - she asked 5 groups of 45 children in different parts of Scotland what they thought of other nations. She gave a list of the nations of the world, and she got them to say what they thought.
And some of them didn't like the Chinese. Some didn't like the Russians. Some didn't like the Germans. Some didn't like the Japanese. But it was quite varied. And she said that was an experiment in prejudices. And that word, prejudice, obviously comes from prejudging. And so for lawyers, it's a good way of remembering don't prejudge based on your prejudice, but keep as much as you can an open mind.
And she said of the 222 children that she asked, only two put that they didn't know enough to make a comment that was fair on people from these different nations. And she thought in a sense that was the right answer. But she wasn't blaming the children. She was saying that the culture affects the way in which we think about people from different nations.
Now I could give lots of different examples of this quest for open-mindedness. As an English lawyer, I've got great respect for Scottish lawyers. And in particular, I'm aware that the great so-called English judges often turn out to be Scottish.
So Lord Mansfield in the 18th century is regarded as the epitome of the legal system of England and Wales, of which he was Lord Chief Justice. But in fact he was Scottish. His name is William Murray. And he was considered to be very open-minded. For instance, he had the illegitimate daughter of a nephew in his household, and this young woman was black. He released a slave in a famous case and he was considered to be liberal towards Catholics, for which - speaking here as a Catholic - for which he suffered. His home was burned down in the Gordon Riots, and they burned his library. But he had the open-mindedness all the way through.
And Lord Denning once gave a lecture in which he said these great judges from Scotland have illuminated English law even though there was prejudice against them. The English weren't open-minded to them. They criticised William Murray's appointment. Then he was followed by Lord Campbell, then Lord Blackburn. And The Times said, why has this freak appointment been made of another, and I quote, Scotchman? Lord Blackburn, Lord Denning says, but he became the greatest judge of the 19th century.
We go right the way through to the days when I was a student in the 1970s. At the end of that, Mrs. Thatcher got elected. And later in her time as prime minister, she appointed a Scottish judge, Lord Mackay. And he went to the funeral of a couple of Catholic judges. And for that, the Free Presbyterian Church, in which he'd been born and which he's an elder, expelled him because it was seen as being supportive of the Catholic Church, to which they were opposed. But his argument was, I'm being supportive of my colleagues.
So right the way through 300 years of thinking about law, it is important to strive to be open-minded, to wait until you know the facts and the law, and to make your judgement as much as you can on the facts and the law, not on some preconception of what other people are like.
End transcript: Video 1 Professor Simon Lee
Video 1 Professor Simon Lee
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