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What is Critical Legal Studies?

Critical Legal Studies (CLS) is an intellectual movement that emerged in the 1970s, challenging traditional legal scholarship and the notion that law is objective or apolitical. CLS advocates argue that law is inherently political and serves to perpetuate social inequalities and power structures. This movement draws from various disciplines, including social theory, political philosophy, and economics, to analyze the law's role in society. It emphasizes that legal rules and doctrines are often indeterminate and can be manipulated to serve the interests of those in power.

CLS has significantly influenced legal thought and has been instrumental in the development of other critical theories, such as feminist jurisprudence and critical race theory. According to a study by the American Bar Foundation, critical approaches to law, including CLS, have grown in prominence within legal scholarship since the late 20th century. By questioning the objectivity of law, CLS scholars encourage a more nuanced understanding of how legal systems can both reflect and shape societal biases and power dynamics.

Jacob Queen
Jacob Queen

Critical legal studies is an intellectual and legal movement that questions the entire legitimacy of the Western legal approach. This movement, which has a left-wing origin politically, views the legal system as a structural tool that helps hold up the existing leadership while holding down the weaker or poorer elements of society. The members of the movement don’t generally believe it’s reasonable to separate the law from politics, and they see many members of the judiciary as enforcers using the law as a way to maintain oppression. The movement started in the 1970s and was strongly influenced by the political activism of the 1960s in the United States. Over time, the critical legal studies movement has spread out across several different ideological groups that often agree on the basic problems, but may differ on their proposed solutions.

People who agree with the critical legal studies movement are generally strongly opposed to the status quo. For example, most of them tend to disagree with capitalist economics, and they generally dislike the individualistic viewpoint espoused in most Western societies, preferring instead a more communal philosophy. Those who favor the movement believe that the current legal system plays a role in helping maintain these structures, and so they think it needs to be changed, or at least viewed from a different angle.

Critical legal studies puts scrutiny on the western legal approach.
Critical legal studies puts scrutiny on the western legal approach.

The critical legal studies movement is very concerned with helping protect the weak from oppression by the powerful, and those who follow it see the current legal system as an enemy in that battle. They believe that even when the law seems to favor the weak, it will tend to be slanted so that it works for those who already have power. So for example, the law is often used by racial majorities to hurt and weaken minorities, or by men to gain a status advantage over women.

People in the critical legal studies movement believe that the perception of a difference between law and politics is actually a myth. They see the law as a tool of politics, or even as a separate kind of politics in and of itself. Many people in the movement also suggest that law is almost meaningless because it’s so widely open to different interpretations. There is a belief that this openness to interpretation will almost always be slanted to favor those who run things already while keeping outsiders from having a say in leadership.

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    • Critical legal studies puts scrutiny on the western legal approach.
      By: 22 North Gallery
      Critical legal studies puts scrutiny on the western legal approach.