Social movements have been instrumental in shaping our legal landscape. Yet it seems that the word “activism” has become a dirty word in the law student community. For those in the legal field, activism is often perceived to be an unproductive pursuit, with community and pro bono work or law reform considered the primary means of change. I think that we need to reconsider this rigid view of the relationship between law, politics, and activism. Ultimately, more law students and lawyers should be standing on the front lines of our social movements.
While it is not within the scope of this article to give a detailed account of what activism means, I will address two common misconceptions. Firstly, that activism consists only of public demonstrations or civil disobedience. While these do play an important role, activism also encompasses acts of self-education, lifestyle choices, and conversation, all with a mind to improving the system. Essentially, it’s about building a movement of people that care about a particular cause. Secondly, that activism exists in binary; you either devote all your time to it or you don’t do anything at all. Such a way of thinking is prohibitive and makes getting involved seem insurmountable. You can support and promote action on social issues while going about your day.
Law students’ aversion to activism largely stems from the way we are taught. Because of how curriculums are structured, we tend to view the law with an instrumental, technocratic and doctrinal mindset. We spend most of our degree focusing on vocational skills, learning to extract legal principles from court decisions and applying them to hypothetical scenarios, leaving very little room to meaningfully discuss policy considerations or normative arguments. In other words, we examine what the law is, but rarely what the law should be. While this equips students with practical and technical skills, it restricts us from asking critical questions about how the law interacts with broader structures of gender, race, and class, and results in an arbitrary distinction between legal problems and societal problems.
Further, the social and political forces that have impacted legal developments are invisible within the law school. We are cautioned against excessive politicisation of the courts and judicial activism, and are instructed to read pages upon pages of landmark court judgements completely devoid of their historical contexts. This skews our collective perspective on the value of activism, leading many to believe that social movements have little to do with the law. On the contrary, many doctrines that now define the Australian legal system were responses to social movements.
The Mabo decision, which overturned the long-standing legal fiction of terra nullius, was a pivotal moment in the Aboriginal land rights movement. It came after decades of protests by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples beginning in the 60s – the Yirrkala Bark Petitions, the Wave Hill Walk Off – and a subsequent string of legislative reform. The judgement in the Tasmania Dam case, which enabled the Federal Parliament to give effect to Australia’s international treaties, was handed down after a blockade by environmental activists and the Hawke government promising to stop the construction of the Franklin Dam.
What, then, should we do as aspiring lawyers to meaningfully contribute to social change? Pro bono and community legal work are an important means of assisting people experiencing disadvantage and the organisations that support them. Further, participating in law reform campaigns will allow you to play a critical role in shaping the development of law in Australia, and is vital to ensuring that legislative changes are backed by consultation and sound research. Many people choose to draw the line here; indeed, there is a growing ideology within the legal community that favours such “practical” forms of action over activism. However, I would argue the natural next step is activism for two reasons.
Firstly, while community legal work can effectively solve individual problems, one must go deeper in order to address broader systemic issues that produce such individual problems in the first place. This is precisely what activism purports to do. A pro bono lawyer will be able to help an Aboriginal person secure housing, whereas an Indigenous rights activist will be able to raise public awareness about discrimination Aboriginal tenants face in the rental market; the starting point for reducing homelessness in Aboriginal populations altogether.
Secondly, there is only so much we can do by simply changing the law. It is not possible to achieve structural change through a top-down mandate, as entrenched practices do not easily lend themselves to codification and statutory restrictions. Instead, it requires concerted and consistent efforts by citizens, government and corporations to transform our political culture and effectuate such change. Recent efforts to ensure genuine compliance with existing environmental legislation, for example, have all been obstructed by a lack of public and political will to prioritise climate action.
This is not to undermine the importance of community legal work and law reform, but rather to say that service, politics, and activism should not be compartmentalised. Positioning lawyers, judges, or legislators as the primary agents of change ignores valuable opportunities for movement building, tends to disempower affected communities, and makes any prospect of successful collective action impossible.
Law students should aspire to be more than neutral service providers. As gatekeepers of complex legal knowledge, as future lawmakers and as administrators of justice, we hold important institutional power that can radically shape the outcomes of our society. We should use that power to strengthen our social movements, and proactively fight for a more just society alongside our fellow activists.