Social History and Law Reform by O R McGregor (Book Review)

  • Seher Bhalla
  • July 26, 2020

Content :

Bibliographic Information

O. R. MCGREGOR delivered the SOCIAL HISTORY AND LAW REFORM as part of the Hamlyn lectures in the year 1979. The lectures were published together in 1981 under the Hamlyn trust itself by Stevens & Sons Ltd. This short book spanning 85 pages has 6 such lectures not including the highly conclusion and highly detailed index containing facts to back each minute observation. 

“In Mill\'s sense, we have been growing up fast these 30 years.”

This line serves an important purpose in the book. It explains the aim of the book but more importantly the perspective with which it was written. Different essays, articles and papers have been combined to track the socio-legal progress of society. Society and law have a fine line running between them and this compilation takes a close look at that and helps the reader understand said line in a chronological order. By going as far back as the Victorian era the book is an attempt at the accurate and chronological development of the two concepts. By taking into account landmark case laws and observations of jurists the book provides a solid legal history of the country and uses the development of society outside of these courtrooms to prove their need and impact. Given England’s place in global history it not only gives insight into one of the most powerful nations in history but also lays the groundwork to understand the events happening currently in the country and where they might lead. 

O.R. McGregor is a Professor of social institutes at the University of London. He definitely displays his proficiency as one, throughout the book; after all; sociology and law are wide topics the encompass multitudes and he manages to capture a large number of said multitudes without over-complicating the core structure or straying too far from it. In Britain sociology and law were extremely different even polar opposite pillars of society with law remaining completely inaccessible to common man for a long time and sociology underestimated for its impact, the book tracks the advancements made in both these structure and how they eventually began overlapping in a more visible manner. 

The chronology maintained is a crucial feature without which the book would fall flat or complicate itself. By going from the late 1970s (decade in which it was originally written) towards the Victorian era the books eases the reader in by going from what they know well towards the relatively unknown. It does not limit itself to this structure only in terms of the era of the chapters but ensures the content of the chapters to maintains a certain timeline. The following lines from the introduction sum up the direction of the book quite well, 

“In the first part of these lectures, I shall reflect on the present relations of law and the other social sciences, consider some consequences that have flowed from the historiography of English legal institutions and then go on to trace the ways in which some Victorian law reformers went about the business of adapting the law to social change.”
Meticulous. That’s the first word that comes to mind when describing the rationale behind the book. As a professor dealing with the topic at hand, McGregor could have easily taken the academic approach and upped the reading level considerably. The fact that it was consciously avoided shows his depth of understanding, after all over the years a major aim of legal reforms in Britain has been to make courts accessible to the common man and not just their lawyers. The meticulous approach begins from his profession and boils down to every single detail involved. 

Another word to add would be concise. The book was initially a series of lectures which have been printed. That fact is an added advantage, by writing it from the perspective of effective verbal communication the audience is largely kept in mind. Their interest, attention span and biases are largely acknowledged. This detail is continuously proven in even simple ways like the titles which largely tell you what to expect, for example; 

‘The Contribution To Law Reform Of The National Association For The Promotion Of Social Science’ This is the title of the third chapter of the book, while it is mildly lengthy it is still pretty straight-forward and sums up without giving out details as to what the chapter is about. 

At the same time this conciseness and verbal to written transition causes certain facts and aspects to be hurriedly brushed up instead of getting the fleshed out explanations they may require. 

The book eventually while going through time further narrow downs the areas of concern from social structure and legal reforms to two primary concerns summed up in the last two chapters, those being, 

‘The Case Of Imprisonment For Debt’ And ’ The Case Of Family Law’ 
The author justifies the need to focus due to the lack of concern revolving around these initially in British society and legal institutes. Again not only do these topics show the disconnect between society and law but also prove the need to reduce it. 

“that what any persons may freely do with respect to sexual relations should be deemed to be an unimportant and purely private matter, which concerns no one but themselves. If children are the result, then indeed commences a set of important duties towards the children, which society should enforce upon the parents much more strictly than it now does. But to have held any human being responsible to other people and to the world for the fact itself, apart from this consequence, will one day be thought one of the superstitions and barbarisms of the infancy of the human race”

In another reference to Mill, the author shows how the limitations on both laws isn’t traditional but far-fetching and inclusive of the queer community as well. The simple, yet critical reference to various niche aspects makes the book a further success. 

By going as far back as the Victorian era the book is an attempt at the accurate and chronological development of the two concepts in terms of British society. By taking into account landmark case laws and observations of jurists the book provides a solid legal history of the country and uses the development of society outside of these courtrooms to prove their need and impact.

"the regular and constant record of the whole proceedings connected with the administration of the law in all its branches; its administration by all courts, civil and criminal, general and local; the state of those courts as to judges and other office-bearers; their whole proceedings through every stage; together with every matter concerning the working of the law ... in a word, the record, in minute detail, and for the most part in a tabular form, of all the facts connected with the execution of our law”

This quote by Sir John Macdonell may not standout by itself, but is central to the approach behind another crucial approach in recording the major changes in the legal institutes. This approach is highlighted in the fourth chapter which focuses on use of statistical evidence to ensure the court practices are doing more good than harm. The data-based approach is modern in the sense that it is for the people, or at the very least has the common man at its centre. McGregor shows his proficiency yet again by ensuring that background aspects like these are brought to the forefront and thus given their due recognition. 

The book makes for an extremely easy, yet informed read without taking up too much time or space. Much like this review an integral reason for the easy read is the inclusion of specific yet informative quotes by reformers and personalities whose contributions remain extremely important to these changes. The language too is not overbearing but manages to successfully convey the aim of the lecture.

The one glaring hole that remains is that the book remains largely focused on the British society in Britain. There is a distance that has been maintained from the previous colonies of the country and the diaspora they brought to Britain. By brushing people of colour and different ethnicity under the rug or ignoring their experiences by clubbing the society at large it distinctly ignores the failure of social and legal institutes in protecting these minorities. 

The book does not take into account the systemic racism and classism that persisted in society and much like the institutes it talks about, the book to manages to fail in doing justice to society in entirety. 

By having a narrow view it further excludes prominent viewpoints from the era who came from different walk of life and thus further limits the validity of the book. 

But despite the closed off view point the book manages to give a deep insight in the primarily indigenious and white population of Britain and the conservative attitude of the majority. 

In the background of Brexit and Black Lives Matters Protest the book offers a strangely incomplete yet deep insight into the viewpoint of the white majority of the country. 

The book  does not justify their actions rather explains the thought process behind said actions. And in uncertain times like these it also gives a hint towards the perspective they might continue to follow if their continues to be sustenance of white supremacy through institutes of a country built largely due to slave labour. On paper the society will be modern in approach but the lacunae will only be seen when the focus is on the aspects excluded in the study approach rather than included.

Oddly enough this text manages to go against the aim of its matron, Hamlyn Trust which aimed to show to the British people the advancements made by British society and law as compared to other European nations. This is as per section 3 of the scheme behind the setting up of Hamlyn lectures. But again by excluding entire diasporas reading the book as a person of clour it does exactly the opposite. 

The book is insightful, but has not aged positively, written in a pre- European Union time period, it does explain how the pro-Brexit movement got so much support. After all it was written with the intention to appease to the superiority complex of people who thought of themselves as better than the rest. 

Thus, the book fulfils all the required check boxes of the time, the aim and rationale while providing certain hidden gems. But currently cannot be taken at face value; ironically this is due to the limitations that progressions in society itself  has seen informs of movements for active and constant inclusion of diverse backgrounds ranging from gender, sexuality to ethnicity. 

In light of these movements it serves as a reminder to the liberal mindset of the problems that come with a dated approach, as for the conservative ones it serves as a reminder of limitations and all the luxuries that they enjoy that weren’t even thought of. 

Read this because you are curious, not because you are a student of sociology or law; and certainly don’t read it as a casual break-time distraction.