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Oxford's Nicola Lacey Delivers Centennial Irvine Lecture Ithaca, NEW YORK, May 9, 2013

A narrowly defined, “pure” jurisprudence exerts an insidious effect on legal education by obscuring the real-world significance of legal theory, asserted Nicola Lacey during a lecture at the Law School on April 19.

Lacey is Professor of Criminal Law and Legal Theory at the University of Oxford and holds a Senior Research Fellowship at All Souls College. Her presentation at the Law School, part of the annual Irvine Lecture series, was entitled “Institutionalizing Responsibility: Implications for Jurisprudence.”

The idea of responsibility served Lacey primarily as an example of how legal concepts evolve in tandem with cultural, political, and institutional conditions. Delving into the history of English common law, she discussed how a modern concept of criminal responsibility could not have emerged without the concurrent development of a legal infrastructure that included, for instance, an appeals system and comprehensive law reporting. These innovations, in turn, relied on such underlying institutional changes as growing urbanization and the centralization of the state.

Tacitly, responsibility also played a key role in the approach to jurisprudence espoused by Lacey, who spoke repeatedly of the accountability between theories and the phenomena they describe. Addressing the work of such legal philosophers as Joseph Raz and John Gardner, she questioned the usefulness of segregating jurisprudence from the sociology of law and enshrining the former as a universally applicable philosophy. 

Since the law is a social practice with real effects on people’s lives, Lacey argued, an understanding of legal concepts, and of what constitutes law itself, must involve “a reflexive movement back and forth between institutional arrangements and classificatory regimes.” This approach does not undermine the enterprise of jurisprudence, she added, but rather introduces “a welcome transparency about how that enterprise is grounded in its subject matter.”

Lacey’s presentation marked the 100th anniversary of the Frank Irvine Endowed Lecture series, Cornell Law’s oldest. The series was established in 1913 by the Conkling Inn of the legal fraternity Phi Delta Phi in honor of former dean Judge Frank Irvine. Past lectures have featured such notable speakers as Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and civil liberties advocate Vincent Blasi.