Juridification of social relationships

In 2004 van Keversbergen and van Waarden published a paper on governance that included the following sentences:

“…seems to be part of a broader tendency of increasing juridification of social relations. Informal relations are becoming increasingly formalized, and mutual expectations and agreements over reciprocal rights and duties fixed in more or less ‘official’ contracts”.

What van Keversbergen and van Waarden describe is well-known to continental Europeans and it’s getting an increasing foothold in the UK as well: Interpersonal and social relationships becoming increasingly juridified. It is not the odd letter of a lawyer, telling you that you’re not allowed to do this and that. Legal fines increasingly become the main tool the settle a conflict between neighbours. Lawyers cue to represent your claim resulting out of a car crash. Lawyer surf the internet looking for website-content violating section 1063(2)a of a law the owner of the website hasn’t even heard of. And almost always victims who fall prey to one of these decent and upright fellows receive a letter asking them to pay a certain amount. And almost always, the one who signed this letter will act “on behalf” and not for himself, so it’s not his “responsibility”, even if he’s been the one who evoked the idea of a fine in the first place.

As lawyers hide behind the claims of their clients, so sometimes do public servants. It’s not Paul who is writing to you, it’s “the Clerk’s office”. And not the people working there, but the Clerk’s office is required to request this and that from you. This and that is almost always something nobody likes himself being subjected to. It’s bad news, and since nobody wants to be the harbinger of bad news, it’s good when you can take shelter behind a position and tell the addressee, that it isn’t you who’s writing this nasty letter, but “the office”. This shelter of semi-anonymity is helpful in a number of ways. You can offend people by being rude, and blame the office. You can do almost anything without being responsible, because it is the office that wrote and not a particular clerk. This is one result of juridification that does not only alter social interaction, it contaminates social interaction with mistrust and with the opportunity for one party to get away with moral hazard.

By the way, Germans on trial after World War II in Nuremberg for being involved in the Holocaust almost always claimed to having been acting on behalf of their superior and in accordance to a particular legal obligation imposed on them by a certain law. Is this just a coincidence or is a broader picture emerging here.

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