Austerity, vulnerability and justice with Martha Fineman

AVJ 14th JulyCardiff Centre of Law and Society was delighted to welcome Professor Martha Fineman as our key note speaker at ‘Austerity, Vulnerability and Justice’. The Summer Seminar was a fitting finale to our 2016 gender rules research series. Martha was joined by Mick Antoniw, Advocate General for Wales to explore the idea of austerity as doctrine and the gendered impact of the institutional weakening of justice in the UK.  In addition, we were proud to host a panel of experts drawn from Cardiff law school as well as practioner-focused organisations.  They included:  Warren Palmer of the Speakeasy Advice Centre; Sheena Jowett, Deputy Chair of the Magistrates Association; Chloe Marong of the Trinity Refugee Rights Centre.  Drawing attention to the impact of austerity in relation to legal aid, family law and childrens’ rights were Dr Daniel Newman; Dr Leanne Smith and Dr Julie Doughty respectively.

14th July, Cardiff Law School, 13:45pm – 17:00pm

Eventbrite - Summer Seminar: Austerity, Vulnerability and Justice

Martha Albertson Fineman is known around the world for her law and society scholarship. Her expertise lies in family law and feminist jurisprudence. She is a Robert W. Woodruff Professor at Emory Law School and founder and director of the Feminism and Legal Theory (FLT) Project, which was inaugurated in 1984. Her scholarly interests are the legal regulation of family and intimacy and the legal implications of universal dependency and vulnerability. martha finemanFineman’s solely authored publications include books—The Autonomy Myth: A Theory of Dependency, The New Press (2004); The Neutered Mother, and Vulnerability bookThe Sexual Family and other Twentieth Century Tragedies, Routledge Press (1995); and The Illusion of Equality: The Rhetoric and Reality of Divorce Reform (1991)—in addition to dozens of journal articles and essays. Her essay in the Yale Journal of Law and Feminism, “The Vulnerable Subject: Anchoring Equality in the Human Condition,” formed the basis of Vulnerability: Reflections on a New Ethical Foundation for Law and Politics, published by Princeton University Press in 2013.

We should  be rethinking  contract, corporation, family, and education  law – not  from the perspective of identities, but from the perspective of privilege and disadvantage and with a firm grounding  in a theory of state responsibility  for the vulnerable legal subjects who actually populate  society. (Fineman (2013) Feminism, masculinities and multiple identities, Nevada Law Journal, 13, 639)

Martha A Fineman’s theory of vulnerability argues for a re-framing of the relationship between citizen and state.  Recognizing   the ‘human’ commonality of all human-beings necessitates a recognition of our intrinsic, and universal, vulnerability. Every human person will have stages in their life when they are dependent,  weak, and in need; as well as times when they feel empowered and strong.  These are fundamental qualities of life and development, yet at the same time, human lives are marked by events.  Our lives may be subject to disease, pandemics, environmental and climate deterioration, terrorism and crime, crumbling  infrastructure, failing institutions, recession, corruption, decay, and  decline. We are situated  beings who live with the ever-present possibility of changing needs and circumstances  in our  individual  and  collective lives.

This universal  fact of vulnerability  requires  social institutions to help build resilience so that humans may adequately  respond  to the many  kinds  of conditions  and  situations  to which we are vulnerable.  The important role of social institutions, in turn,  highlights  the importance  of the state  as a guarantor of equal access to,  and  capacity-building within, these institutions. Rather  than  the classical liberal “night  watchman” state, then, Fineman  argues that we should envision a “responsive state.”