McGill Convocation Address: Legal Pluralism in Practice[Record]

  • Sally Engle Merry

Silver Professor of Anthropology, New York University. On May 31, 2013, McGill University awarded Professor Merry the degree doctor of laws, honoris causa.

Editor’s Note

Professor Sally Engle Merry was awarded an Honourary Doctor of Laws at the McGill Faculty of Law’s 2013 convocation ceremony. A leading American legal anthropologist, she reminds us in her graduation address of the importance of legal pluralist framework—not only to the study oflaw, but also to a general understanding of human interaction. She demonstrates the need for jurists to be alert to the effects of overlapping legal systems using examples of her varied experiences studying these systems’ multidimensional roles insociety—in colonial Hawai‘i, the urban United States, and East and Southeast Asia, among other locations—and her analyses of the manner in which different levels of law interact to ensure the protection of human rights.

Moreover, Professor Merry’s own career illustrates to graduating law students the lengthy reach of legal scholarship into other academic fields and walks of life: her interdisciplinary research interweaves an understanding of legal traditions with examinations of governance, colonialism, human rights, and race and gender issues. Her work and the insights of her graduation address both exemplify one of the aims of McGill’s legal education program: to prepare jurists not only to practice or study law but also to recognize and explore its reach into all aspects of everyday life. It is the McGill Law Journal’s privilege to share Professor Merry’s ideas with a broader audience and to dedicate the publication of her address to the Faculty of Law’s 2013 graduating class.

Mot de la rédactrice

Lors de la cérémonie de remise des diplômes du printemps 2013, la Faculté de droit de l’Université McGill a remis un doctorat honorifique en droit à la professeure Sally Engle Merry. Anthropologue judiciaire éminente aux États-Unis, elle a rappelé dans son discours l’importance d’un cadre juridique pluraliste, tant pour l’étude du droit que pour une meilleure compréhension des rapports humains en général. Elle montre que les juristes se doivent d’être sensibles aux effets de la coexistence de différents systèmes juridiques. Elle s’appuie pour cela sur ses diverses expériences accumulées lors de ses travaux de recherche sur les rôles multidimensionnels de ces systèmes dans la société — tel que, entre autres, la société hawaïenne postcoloniale, les milieux urbains américains, de l’Asie de l’Est et de l’Asie du Sud-Est.

Elle s’appuie également sur ses analyses portant sur la façon dont l’interaction des différents niveaux de législations assure la protection des droits de l’homme. La carrière de la professeure Merry donne aux finissants en droit un excellent exemple de la portée significative de la recherche juridique pouvant toucher d’autres disciplines académiques et différents milieux sociaux. Son approche interdisciplinaire allie une compréhension de différentes traditions juridiques avec des analyses des questions de gouvernance, de colonialisme, de droits de l’homme, de genre et de race. Ses travaux et son discours de remise des diplômes illustrent tous deux l’un des objectifs de la Faculté de droit de McGill: préparer des juristes non seulement à pratiquer ou à étudier le droit, mais aussi à en reconnaître et explorer la portée dans plusieurs aspects du quotidien. C’est avec grand plaisir que la ; Revue de droit de McGill; publie le discours de la professeure Merry pour en faire bénéficier une plus vaste audience et le dédie à la promotion 2013 de la Faculté de droit.

Citation: (2013) 59:1 McGill LJ 1

Référence: (2013) 59: 1 RD McGill 1

It is a great honour to receive this degree, particularly from a law school that I have long admired for its commitment to social justice and human rights and to the concept of legal pluralism. I admire its effort to see law through the lens of socio-legal analysis, as well as its commitment to an international and a domestic focus on law. These critical perspectives contribute to McGill’s visibility and its international reputation as an excellent law school. Today I want to talk in particular about the value of a focus on legal pluralism. McGill’s Faculty of Law has taken a leading role in developing and promoting this perspective on law. This is an extremely valuable framework, and I urge you to recognize its value and to hold on to it as you go out into the world as practicing or academic lawyers. Legal pluralism is not a theory of law or an explanation of how it functions, but a description of what law is like. It alerts observers to the fact that law takes many forms and can exist in parallel regimes. It provides a framework for thinking about law, about where to find it and how it works. As such, legal pluralism provides an invaluable guide to thinking about law in its multiple instantiations and intersections and to paying attention to alternative understandings and practices of law, particularly among the less powerful members of a society. Legal pluralism offers three critical insights about law: The value of legal pluralism as an analytical framework for understanding how law works emerged from my research experiences, with three examples being particularly pertinent. The first emerged during my research on community mediation in the 1980s.2 I was studying a system of conflict resolution that claimed to stand outside the American legal system. The program handled cases that were taken to court and diverted to mediation at early stages of the legal process. Most concerned conflicts between neighbours, spouses, boyfriends and girlfriends, or parents and children. Much of this alternative dispute resolution movement was framed as a necessary corrective for an overly litigious society and took a strong anti-law perspective. It promised to diminish the alienating and costly use of law for interpersonal and property problems by replacing it with informal, community-based mediation. Local leaders rather than lawyers staffed these programs. I studied one community mediation program attached to a lower court in Massachusetts, which handled cases people had taken to court. The program’s office was in the courthouse, but the mediation sessions took place in local schools and churches. At the end of each session, the participants were encouraged to sign an agreement. The document had a court logo at the top, and mediators told the parties that the agreement would be placed “on file” with the court. What that meant was never explained, however. When I interviewed litigants afterward, many thought that the mediation session was part of the court process and that the agreement they signed would be enforced by the court—but, in fact, it had no legal standing. This is an example of the intersection of plural legalities. The informal mechanism adopted the trappings and forms of state law, even when it lacked its formal authority. Indeed, people using informal mechanisms often seek to make them appear similar to formal legal institutions. For example, in 2005 I studied a women’s local court in India, called the nari adalat, that handled cases of domestic violence, divorce, and dowry.3 It had no legal authority, but over time it began to register cases in a large book, charge filing fees, and …