"When law looks at history, it tends to assume that a particular outcome was inevitable."
It is a quote etched in their memories: eminent Cambridge historian Sir Richard Evans telling an audience that “law and history have nothing to say to one another”.
“We have spent the last 15 years showing that they do,” says Research Fellow Judith Rowbotham, reflecting upon her partnership with Professor Kim Stevenson, one that has delivered the case for an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the social and historical context of law and criminal justice.
From finding parallels of modern crimes in past history to looking at how contemporary policy around crime and the use of law in everyday life is overly reliant on models predicated upon studies of big cities, the two have defined a new field of enquiry. In the process, they have created an international network of academics and legal and nonlegal practitioners, and seen their work translated across language and disciplinary boundaries.
“When law looks at history, it tends to assume that a particular outcome was inevitable,” says Judith, a Visiting Researcher. “And with historians, there is often an assumption that once a law is passed, it works as it is intended.”
“What interests us, though, is the cultural, social and historical forces at play when laws come to be passed and the consequences of them,” adds Kim, Professor of Socio-legal History in the Plymouth Law School – and the person whose question prompted Sir Richard to deliver his damning judgment many years earlier.
Kim and Judith met nearly 20 years ago when they were at Nottingham Trent University: “I was known for working on Victorian society and culture,” remembers Judith. “My first book was ‘Good Girls Make Good Wives’, which looked at guidance for girls in Victorian literature. Then Kim rang me out of the blue and said, ‘Were Victorians interested in bad behaviour?’ I can say that, tempted by this opportunity, I abandoned good behaviour without a backwards glance!”
“We started working on how a sense of history, either recent or distant, could really provide context to present ideas and potentially become the basis for future policy,” Kim recalls. “It became apparent to us at this time that there were many other people interested in working on crime and law-breaking across disciplinary boundaries, particularly law and history.”
It resulted in the pair forming the SOLON Research Group in 1999, which now, as the SOLON consortium, promotes interdisciplinary study in law, crime and history, and encompasses seven universities and 350 academics and practitioners. Described by both as an ‘umbrella organisation’, its aim has been to inform members of the latest developments through conferences and regular emails.