When is Law Not the Law?

Sida Liu spoke of the legal climate in rural China


In China, the further you get from cities—from the centers of money and power–the less lawyers control the law.  In a symposium on “legal services for vulnerable populations in India and China,” Sida Liu spoke about one western province of China that had a total of two lawyers.  To cover their territory, they would travel on horseback six hours across the desert.  “They would get so lonely on these trips that they would sing to themselves for comfort.”  They might be paid in produce by their clients.  China has a substantial number of lawyers, but they are concentrated in the big cities where salaries are exponentially higher than in the provinces.

 Legal services in outlying areas are mostly in the hands of legal workers or barefoot lawyers.  Lawyers may be have paid by the government; legal workers must negotiate payment with clients.  Barefoot lawyers have no legal training; they are self-taught and don’t charge fees.  With so much law outside the profession, most grievances are solved outside the courts.  Mediation and negotiation are invoked more than regulation.  Clients therefore can be at the mercy of local custom and tradition. 

 The distribution of lawyers is better in India, but the total number is still so small and the population so large, that “vulnerable populations” are still dominated by customary law and the local climate of opinion.  Laws related to marriage and divorce in India have improved in the last thirty years, but local opinion and the legal climate is still under control of men.    

 In China too, the version of customary law that gets codified is the version by men. Among those who suffer the most from a situation are women caught in bad marriages.  A wife who has the courage to seek a divorce has no customary rights.  To get the divorce, they must give up property, home, and children.  And if they try to get a divorce, they face obstruction, harassment, and physical abuse from husbands; threats can last for years after the divorce.  Susan Williams spoke of a similar situation in Africa.   “Women have greater access to justice, but this access to justice doesn’t translate into delivery of justice.” 

 The symposium sponsored by the Maurer School of Law Center for Law, Society, and Culture included experts from outside and inside the law school:  Sida Liu, assistant professor of sociology and law at the University of Wisconsin, spoke on China’s legal situation.  Sylvia Vatuk, professor emerita of anthropology at the University of Illinois Chicago addressed the legal situation for Indian women.  From the Maurer School were Ke Li, doctoral candidate in sociology, and Christiana Ochoa, Carole Silver, and Susan Williams, professors of law.

 The symposium was long on problems and short on solutions.  Most of the solutions proposed—such as pre-nuptial agreements—seem to impose an outside culture on traditionally patriarchal societies.  Still, the divorce rate is going up in China, it was pointed out.  Chinese women are making the effort internally to mobilize new ideas of the marriage contract.   The symposium did make a start at addressing one of the most fundamental problems that the law makes for vulnerable populations.  Two members of the panel explained that Chinese law students never hear about basic legal workers or barefoot lawyers, so they never know about the legal processes experienced by vast numbers of Chinese.  U.S. law schools have been criticized as well for not addressing the way law works for the poor.   From the reaction of the audience at the Maurer School event, most were hearing these detail about China and India for the first time.  That, at least, is a first step.  

Sylvia Vatuk described the legal world faced by Indian women

Categories: Faculty, Lectures