Workshops explore aspects of law and society from Russia to Rousseau

05 October 2012

The Foundation for Law, Justice and Society brought two series of workshops to a close at Wolfson College on 4th October with workshops assessing legal culture in contemporary Russia and the influence of classical scholars on constitutional thought through the ages.

In the morning, Dr Marina Kurkchiyan from the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, Oxford, lead a roundtable discussion entitled, What Can an Examination of Russia Tell Us About Law in Society?

The workshop was opened with a presentation by Gilles Favarel-Garrigues from Sciences-Po, Paris, who shared his research findings on the role of international norms on the repression of economic crime, particularly anti-money laundering policies, in Russia in the twenty-first cenury.

Varvara Andranova of the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies followed by presenting her research into popular perceptions of the Justices of the Peace in Russia, finding that nearly half of all civil cases heard by Justices of the Peace relate to collection of taxes, and that cases by the state against individuals had increased by 123% since 2007.

In the second session of the morning, participants sought to form a big picture of Russian legal culture and identify the tendencies that may determine the future in Russia, focusing on a series of recent cases such as the conviction of the punk band Pussy Riot for their anti-Kremlin protest in a Moscow church.

Marat Shterin from King'€™s College, London, who sat in on the case, described how the lawyers representing the band had acted "extremely unprofessionally" to further a political agenda, a view that would be supported by the recent dismissal of one such lawyer by a band member, which has delayed the appeal.

In the afternoon, Professor Denis Galligan chaired the concluding workshop in a three-year series entitled Constitutions and the Classics, in which contemporary constitution-making is assessed through the prism of classical scholarship, to identify the roots and development of today's widely accepted constitutional beliefs. 

Prof. Ian Williams from University College London opened the session with his characterization of the polarizing figure of Edward Coke - the first English judge to be dismissed based on his actions as a judge rather than for misconduct.

While Coke's activism on issues such as habeas corpus failed to convince all present that he was a constitutional thinker in the strict sense, Wilfrid Prest from the University of Adelaide made the case for the influence of William Blackstone's thought on the US Constitution, noting that the trio of inalienable human rights - life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness - which Jefferson embedded in the Declaration of Independence, has been attributed to his reading of Blackstone.

The day was brought to a close by Ruzha Smilova of Sofia University, who argued that Rousseau's theory of absolute sovereignty residing in the people has become a defining mark of modern constitutions. However, Smilova identified a tension between popular sovereignty as imagined by Rousseau and the doctrine of limited government, arguing that minority rights would be put in jeopardy by the tyranny of the majority.

The findings of this line of inquiry into constitutional thought will be brought together in a collected volume, which is expected to be published by Oxford University Press next year.