2019 – Mavis Maclean

Announcement at The RCSL 2019 Meeting:

Dear Dr Maclean, dear Mavis,
Dear colleagues and friends from all generations,
Dear members of the Onati Institute and those who support it,

It is a great honour for me to present the Podgorecki Prize 2019 to Mavis Maclean. I do this on behalf of my colleagues on the committee, Professors David Nelken and Pierre Guibentif. The three of us unanimously agreed that the award should go to Mavis Maclean for her towering presence in our discipline, her outstanding research across decades, her impact and engagement with law making and policy, her tireless efforts to advance socio-legal scholarship and the community of scholars in this field, and not the least for her continuous and unwavering support for this wonderful institution where we are celebrating its 30th anniversary with this conference. There are many now in this audience, who became involved by reading her books and articles, who thrived on her support and who were drawn into this field and socio-legal research by her scholarship and personality, in short by her as a role model. This includes scholars from many countries, and I would like to specifically mention our Polish colleagues. She was and is a model in particular for us women who over more than four decades entered the field. At the time when Mavis Maclean started her career, there were few and far between who could be such a female role model or even more, who could support young women who wanted to engage in socio-legal research. And exactly therefore it is a particular pleasure to present the Podgorecki Prize to a woman for the first time, and that this woman is Mavis Maclean.

If you ask me to describe her amazing body of work – and I will not go into detail here – two expressions or images come to my mind: first, that she was a trail-blazer in many ways; and second that she gave a human face to law – she explored and showed us the multitude of human faces: of those who make and apply law, and of those who are affected and have to deal with it in their lives. Across her career, she has given us lively and living portraits of these women and men as they are involved in matters of family law.

Family law is at the heart of our social institutions, where our moral and social values are deeply and intricately embedded, and any changes of the institution and the values and morals it embodies have far-reaching consequences beyond its immediate realm. Changes of the law that are necessary to keep up and capture the social and moral changes consequently are hotly debated and divide societies, often between generations, or different social and religious groups. Discussion and legal changes arouse the strongest of emotions in the public, and widespread interest: people sense when sweeping changes are around the corner or already have arrived, and they react viscerally to difference and what they see as danger to these values, this institution and the law that supports it. You might think that family law would be a kind of “natural” area for socio-legal studies by women scholars and politicians. Far from that: until quite recently it was a reserve of men, both legal scholars and politicians.

Mavis Maclean was a trail-blazer in family law and socio-legal scholarship in this area. She followed the massive changes in the way how people started families, lived together and raised children since the 1980s and the sea changes of our perceptions of family and family. She started out with the question of money and divorce, financial support for women, addressing the many and diverse needs of women, children and men, who went through a separation and divorce. From there she moved to address the children and the emerging problems of patchwork families in the 1990s. It was still about money, but the focus was on support for children, from first and subsequent marriages. This led seamlessly on to the recognition of changes in perceptions, and values of fatherhood, and how shared parenting and responsibility could be legally addressed after a separation, accommodating needs of children, mothers and fathers. And finally, from there it was only a small step to look at those who made and applied family law, observing the family justice system and its functioning itself, living law with human faces.

Trail-blazing for Mavis MacLean always included the most recent, best and pertinent methodology for her empirical research, with no blinkers or preferences for one approach over the other. From the start, she engaged in generating empirical knowledge rather than theorizing, as it was then incredibly de rigeur in our field. As she herself put it, she was not interested in the “semantics” and conceptual divisions in our discipline, but in the “sustainability” of problem-oriented knowledge generation as the foundation of evidence-based policies.

From surveys and large numbers (as the philosopher Edmund Husserl, a mathematician, called it “the measurement of the mundane”) to in-depth qualitative interviews and document analysis, and on to observations in courts, she had evidence at her fingertips. So, the next step was to enter the world of politics and policy making in family law. I assume that Whitehall, the Ministry of Justice and other dignified places of law making and policy design in the UK were (and are) dominated by men. Further, that these had mainly engaged with others of their kind when seeking advice; however, they were not adverse to facts and evidence (at least not at the time). This was exactly what Mavis McLean not only could provide but help to understand and actually turn into reasonable legal policies that could capture the changes in the family as an institution, and could relate law to the experiences of families as they navigated rough waters.

Trail blazing means going places. Even though Central Europe had been a fertile ground for our discipline, and with the Podgorecki Prize we honour an eminent Polish Scholar, the region, its laws and its socio-legal scholarship were terra incognita through most of the 1980s and early 1990s. However, family law was as central to understanding the relationship between this society, its policy, its changes and its laws as it was in the western democracies.

Again, it was the women who went east, besides Mavis Maclean Inga Markovits, and family law was at the core of their engagement. Mavis Maclean paved the way for collaboration, information, comparison and fact finding on how law worked in an authoritarian environment, but foremost for a mutual understanding and learning, hugely enriching our perspectives and discipline. With the Podgorecki Prize we honour this work of outreach, understanding and collaboration that Mavis Maclean accomplished over the past decades.

How families experience the law as they are confronted with it or need it, whether as supporting or controlling, defines the way how law can function. The many human faces of law become visible at the intersections between legal and organisational structures, the political landscape and, most important, directly in the work of those who run the justice system: the lawyers and judges, the mediators and legal advisers. Observing their work reveals the human and also the humane face of the law, and the daily efforts and good will of those involved. Mavis Maclean takes a close look and sees a culture of settlement and honest offers of help rather than unabashed self-interest, and a dysfunctional system, as is so often the suspicion. Starting with the experiences of families she ends her journey to discover the human face of law in its everyday functioning, that is where it really lives.

Dear Mavis, thank you.

Susanne Karstedt