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What is Critical Legal Studies?

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  • Written By: Jacob Queen
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 09 December 2016
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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.

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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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