Cultural anthropology is usually the stuff of remote rainforest tribes and secluded island kingdoms. But in a unique twist, Windsor Law professor Laverne Jacobs is applying the analytical tools of anthropology to a legal issue that strikes much closer to home.
Jacobs’ research focuses on questions of fairness in administrative law, particularly in administrative tribunals, the "arms-length" governmental bodies whose decisions can affect our everyday lives.
For example, if you feel that your rights have been violated in some way, few people have the money to launch an expensive civil lawsuit. And in many cases, you would have the opportunity to file a complaint with a human rights tribunal, a labour board or a privacy commission.
"The face of justice for a lot of people, therefore, is an administrative tribunal," says Jacobs.
The problem, adds Jacobs, is that the administrative justice process may not always seem fair or impartial.
"How independent are these bodies from the government? How independent should they be?" she asks. When there is a change of power in the government, does the ideology of the tribunal change? If the tribunal is a regulatory body, how do decision makers avoid interference from members of the industry?
In order to figure out exactly how administrative tribunals can potentially lose their impartiality, Jacobs — an experienced interdisciplinary researcher — decided to borrow a page from the social sciences.
"These [forms of interference] are things that you read about, but no one has gone out and explored what the factors are that really affect tribunal members," Jacobs explains.
So Jacobs decided to do just that — to go out and conduct "field work" in the tribunals themselves. Much like a cultural anthropologist would do field studies on other cultures, Jacobs composed first-person ethnographies of the unique culture of administrative tribunals.
What she found was that each particular tribunal had its own internal culture and its own perception of its mission that greatly influenced ideas of fairness.
Jacobs proposes that tribunal members engage in broader dialogues with the public and other external stakeholders to achieve a deeper understanding of their larger role in society.
Even before completing her field research, Jacobs was not a stranger to the inner workings of tribunals. Because of her recognized expertise in administrative law, she was asked to be a part-time member of the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.
Learn more about Professor Jacobs and her exciting research at her website.