Click here or press the Escape key to leave this site now

Blog

Perspective matters when it comes to securing social justice: the Scottish Feminist Judgments Project

by Sharon Cowan, Chloë Kennedy and Vanessa Munro

Abstract art piece of a red background with two half ovals in teal and blue. The head of a woman appears at the intersection of the two ovals.

What is the Scottish Feminist Judgments Project (SFJP)? The SFJP is a collaborative legal project involving over 40 contributors: university academics, lawyers, judges, activists and artists. The project examines sixteen important legal cases in Scotland, and rewrites the judges’ decisions as if the judge had been a feminist, using only the resources that would have been available to the judge at the time of the original case.

The idea is to highlight the differences that a feminist perspective could have made, either to the outcome for the participants in the case, the reasons given by the judge for their decision, or the way the ‘story’ of the relevant legal facts is told in court. The sixteen feminist judgments, and accompanying expert commentaries on the law, have been written from a range of feminist perspectives, and cover a broad range of topics (including company, property, housing, criminal, employment, medical, and family law). In September 2019 we took the SFJP on tour to Scottish law schools to run feminist judgment writing workshops with law students — the legal practitioners of tomorrow — to show, in a hands-on way, the impact that a feminist perspective can have on legal decision-making.

What is the Scottish Feminist Judgments Project (SFJP)? The SFJP is a collaborative legal project involving over 40 contributors: university academics, lawyers, judges, activists and artists. The project examines sixteen important legal cases in Scotland, and rewrites the judges’ decisions as if the judge had been a feminist, using only the resources that would have been available to the judge at the time of the original case. The idea is to highlight the differences that a feminist perspective could have made, either to the outcome for the participants in the case, the reasons given by the judge for their decision, or the way the ‘story’ of the relevant legal facts is told in court. The sixteen feminist judgments, and accompanying expert commentaries on the law, have been written from a range of feminist perspectives, and cover a broad range of topics (including company, property, housing, criminal, employment, medical, and family law). In September 2019 we took the SFJP on tour to Scottish law schools to run feminist judgment writing workshops with law students — the legal practitioners of tomorrow — to show, in a hands-on way, the impact that a feminist perspective can have on legal decision-making.

The rewritten decisions and expert commentaries were complemented by the work of 8 artists who produced, in a variety of media, works that responded to individual cases or to the idea of feminist judging more generally. These artistic pieces have been exhibited in various venues across Scotland, including art galleries, universities and the Scottish Parliament. As well as an academic book, the project also has its own website (which you can visit here) and virtual art exhibition, and is now accompanied by a series of four podcasts, produced by Gabrielle Blackburn and Amrita Ahluwalia.

Taken together, these resources aim to show that sometimes the laws we have are not the root of the problem. The problem can also lie in how those laws are applied (or not) in concrete cases, and in the social structures and systems that empower women to access those laws in practice. Law is not simply a neutral, abstract set of rules that are uniformly and evenly applied; different perspectives and interpretations of law can lead to different sorts of legal outcomes, and divergent impacts on people in the “real world”.

The SFJP is part of a global effort to bring marginalised voices and perspectives more fully into legal debates. FJPs have been completed in Canada, England and Wales, Northern/Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and the US, and are ongoing in India, Africa and Mexico. These projects show in a variety of ways how law not only has gender ‘blind spots’, but that dominant and powerful voices can marginalize and oppress people in all sorts of intersecting ways, including on the grounds of their ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, gender identity, or class. The way this operates in practice depends, of course, on the national and cultural context. For example, historically, Scots law has developed a certain built-in flexibility that allows Scottish judges slightly more discretion in the interpretation of legal sources than they might have elsewhere. The SFJP questions how that discretion is exercised, and who it benefits.

Given the demographic profile in Scotland, it is unsurprising (though still a source of regret) that the majority of our SFJP contributors were female-identified, white, cisgender, and able-bodied - and, in the sense of having access to university education, many were multiply privileged. This tells us that while FJPs have the power to change perspectives, attitudes, and approaches, a great deal of effort is needed to build different kinds of alliances that enable FJPs to grow deeper roots in more diverse communities, both within and outwith the academy, and within and outwith our familial and familiar communities.

Like other FJPs, we had many conversations during the project about whether using court judgments to bring a feminist challenge to law was conceding too much to the legal system, echoing Audre Lorde’s concerns about the impossibility of “dismantling the master’s house” with only the “master’s tools”. Law is a powerful force within society and says much about what we as a community consider important, and therefore we must engage in trying to reform and improve law to change the lives of those it governs for the better. But to think that law alone can deliver social justice and equality in society would be naïve. Activism – and art – have a crucial role to play in challenging social injustice, in ways that are not constrained by the legal system’s rules and concepts. The objective of the SFJP was to bring together legal and non-legal methods of challenging law, and to show how even working within the existing law, there is always space for creative alternatives.

FJPs are only one (important) tool in the ever-evolving endeavour to resist oppressive legal norms and processes, and to craft a collaborative, creative and sometimes conflictual space in which to dismantle the master’s house. But they offer us opportunities to rewrite / re-right the wrongs of the past, and also remind us to pay attention to whose voices are most silenced in the present, and in the future.

This new series of podcasts uses specific cases rewritten in the project as lenses through which to ask more general questions about gendered experiences and perspectives in the interpretation and application of law. We hope that these podcasts will spark further reflection amongst a wider audience, who would be unlikely to otherwise engage with the project’s rather ‘weighty’ academic book.

The podcast episodes are available to listen here. And you can read more about the SFJPs on their website.

Art by Rachel Donaldson and commissioned for the SFJP.

Share graphic

08088 010 789

All our helplines are open as usual.

Legal information

Monday 2 - 5 pm
Tuesday 6 - 8 pm
Wednesday 11 am - 2 pm
Friday 10 am - 1 pm

Advocacy support

Tuesday 11 am - 2 pm

Sexual harassment

Thursday 5 - 8 pm

Loading