Author Q&A: Zach Richards

New administrative justice and the rule of law: an interview with Zach Richards, author of Responsive Legality.

About the Author:

What is your academic background?

My academic background is in law predominantly and also literature. For undergrad I did a combined Law and English degree, followed by a Grad Dip in Legal Practise and PhD in Law and Administrative justice with a substantive emphasis on refugee law and scholarly emphasis on public administration literature.

Who has influenced you the most?

Broadly speaking, in terms of influencing my social, political and academic leanings, I would say the traditional social theory canon of thinkers Marx and Weber (to a less extent Durkheim) have inspired a combination of interest in substantive social—theoretical enquiry as well as methodological approaches. Webers ‘ideal type’ methodology of perceiving broad aspects of the social world as thought experiments and Marx’s historical materialism where a combination of loose empirical methods and broad observations about historical trends and patterns are particularly influential for me.

What first attracted you to socio-legal studies as an area of study?

I would say it was the early realisation in studying law that formal law can’t tell us very much about social reality, and to understand the world around us – legal or otherwise-- we really need to use social science methods and frameworks that are more encompassing of the human diversity of the social world. I knew early on when studying contract law or tort law or commercial law that the laws that I was learning about were only a small part of the picture of how social reality played out for individuals – and with a deep interest in justice and individual welfare, I often felt that studying or practising law on its own would only come so far in assisting individuals to achieve just outcomes because of the inequalities individuals face around issues such as access to justice, stigma and discrimination, different levels of standing and ability etc etc. I was drawn to socio-legal studies for its inherent recognition of the gap between formal law and welfare outcomes for individuals and its core enquiry focussing on the way law plays out in social reality.

Tell us an unusual fact about yourself and your teaching or writing style?

An unusual fact about my teaching style is that I like to use the socratic method…well, Im not sure how unusual that is but maybe for an early career academic it is. I think there’s much more that can be learnt, and more deeply, from students discussing and exploring issues for themselves and often just ‘preaching’ ‘lecturing’ or ‘mansplaining’ information to someone is not only ignorant of the logic and deductive reasoning that individuals can use to process information but also fails to produce the depth of understanding that can be reached when students are encouraged to be more actively involved in their own learning.

Do you have plans for future books? What's next in the pipeline for you?

Yes the next book I've just started writing is a bit different – it’s a semi autobiographical novel called Men are From the Womb Women are From the Womb about my experiences with gender and sexuality and gender transition growing up in a religious family. It’s pretty different from this one, with more of a literary rather than academic market.

What do you feel has been a highlight for you, in your career?

Well it’s only really just beginning I think so it’s hard to say! Possibly working for a judge at the Supreme Court NSW was a great experience as it helped me see many of the social realities of the courtroom and gave me a good behind the scenes look into that aspect of the justice system.

What do you see yourself doing in ten years' time?

Hmmm part of my problem is I’m interested in too much and need to narrow it down. I feel Ive already had some great experiences and am still trying to balance various career pursuits and hobbies and see which ones will continue to take off and which are just things I’ll do for fun every now and again. So in short Im just going to have to say watch this space.

What is the last book you read (non-academic)?

The Most Good You Can Do by Peter Singer. It considers the movement of effective altruism and how one can use their career, entrepreneurial skills, finances and talents to help and better humanity. I really enjoyed it as a quite mainstream presentation of ethical philanthropy and it’s inspired me to keep thinking about how my skills and passions can contribute to important social goals.

About the book and the subject area:

Congratulations on the publication of your book Responsive Legality. What do you want your audience to take away from the book? 

Thank you!

In very broad terms I hope my audience take a message of hope in governance. Whilst there is still of course much to be cynical about when it comes to justice and fair administration across many areas of contemporary governance, the studies and interviews in the book reveal a morally rich public official that draws on a range of tools for producing greater justice for citizens and applicants in the twenty first century. Where the iconic twentieth century official was bound by rigid rules imposed by a hierarchical and bureaucratically organised management chain, there is much more flexibility, adaptability and creativity beginning to infiltrate twenty first century public organisations. This allows the justice that is produced to be greater as it is not confined to a focus on procedural consistency, but also incorporates a range of more complex psychologies and morally rich decision making dispositions to allow for equality of outcome for applicants.

What inspired you to write this book?

I would say it was gap between some of the experiences I’d had working in the legal field of the public service and the hopeful realities for future public administration hinted at in the literature that I wanted people to know about. It can be quite frustrating working in the public service as someone who is legally trained and feeling like you are only to apply the current law in a rigid and mechanical manner even if you know that it’s not in an applicant or citizens best interests in doing so. I’d been fortunate to work at the Department of Immigration and also at the Supreme Court NSW before starting my PhD research in law and public administration, on which earlier versions of this book were based, and became quite depressed knowing that even the best technical training in law was sometimes not enough to really help vulnerable applicants. I’d also done some work at refugee organisations, trying to help some of the most vulnerable users of our justice system, and routinely observed the importance of a range of life skills and personal qualities that were necessary in decision makers in order to make decisions that were both legally robust and also in the best interests of applicants and organisations – and therefore able to better align the gaps between formulaic law and actual justice outcomes. Once I started the research into organisation studies and public administration, which I conducted over about a five year period from both primary and secondary studies I learnt that there were many public organisations and individuals working in those organisations who were equally as frustrated at me at the technicalities of governance that seemed to epitomise a largely bygone era – or at least were gradually being replaced with more empathetic and less rigid ways of applying laws and organisational codes that focussed on more purposive readings of regulatory codes in the interests of producing just administration. It was these studies that time and again suggested a more hopeful future administration than the bureaucratic limitations of Weber’s technocratic modernity that inspired me to write Responsive Legality.

Why is your book relevant to present day socio-legal studies?

Responsive Legality is relevant to present day socio—legal studies in that it iconically – as many socio—legal studies do, reveals the gaps that currently exist between the formal law and everyday social realities. It reveals that more than a formalistic or technical understanding of legal doctrine is needed for positive and justice oriented public administration; there are a much richer range of human values that drive effective governance and these inject the socio into socio-legal studies. It also directly speaks to two subfields of contemporary socio-legal studies: legal consciousness studies and socio-legal administrative justice scholarship; blending the methods and substantive fields of enquiry of these two domains in its exploration of responsive legality

How do you think the field of socio-legal studies is evolving today?

I think there are a couple of ways socio-legal studies is expanding today. The first is in terms of developments in methodology and the second in terms of substantive topics of enquiry. In terms of methodology, whilst traditionally there was more emphasis on single methodology studies (either quantitative or qualitative and then usually with only one or a couple of approaches such as interviews, questionnaires, focus groups) there is more experimentation and triangulation or ‘mixed methods’ approaches to produce more robust data; or at least data that speaks in a variety of ways –producing broad encapsulations as well as more rich, deep data about a given area of the social world simultaneously.

What are the main developments in research that you're seeing in your subject area of expertise? 

In both legal consciousness studies and administrative justice scholarship there are methodological and substantive developments taking place. In legal consciousness studies, where the central question is: how do perceptions and understandings of law feed back into the legal system and shape how law is operationalised and understood, studies are increasingly expanding the empirical fieldwork sites from being exclusively western to starting to ask these questions and draw comparisons in a non western context also such as recent legal consciousness studies in Indonesia and Japan. One of the founders of legal consciousness studies also lamented in an article in 2005 that legal consciousness studies was ‘past its used by date’ and that researchers are time and again producing the same theoretical frames albeit in different contexts and hence we aren’t really discovering anything new.

How does your book relate to these recent developments?

This has prompted developments such as in my own work to consider the relationship between legal consciousness and the state – shifting the enquiry from an emphasis on citizens’ understandings of the law and towards consideration of how organisations and public officials think about law.My book also responds to some of the concerns that legal consciousness studies has reached a ‘dead end’ so to speak by reinvigorating its core theoretical framework through linking it with administrative justice scholarship, considering not just how legal attitudes differ between individual users of legal systems, but also how these varying attitudes produce varied visions of justice and fairness for its citizens.

Is there one piece of research included in the book which surprised you or challenged your previous understanding of the topic?

Probably the interviews I conducted with the former members of the Refugee Review Tribunal were the most surprising or challenging. When I began the interviews I was quite cynical about refugee welfare, and cynical perhaps from the media and some social justice work I’d done about the potential for government officials to really incorporate rich values into their decision making and not just be complicit in an ‘unfair’ system. What emerged through talking to the former refugee judges time and again was the dedication, seriousness of purpose, knowledge and expertise of these individuals. As they discussed their experiences working on the tribunal their interviews brought the diffuse public administration studies that I was reading to life – challenging historical notions of Webers technocratic bureaucratic and revealing a more enlightened official who cares equally about getting the rules and regulations right and producing a good outcome for the applicant.

What did you enjoy about writing the book?

I enjoyed navigating the iterative relationship between the interview data and the broader public administration studies; learning the literature to motivate in my data collection and then collecting the data to re—enliven my understanding of the literature. BI also enjoyed bringing the interview findings to life through the testimonies of the interviewed judges, discussed through using pseudoyms to preserve anonymity, as it allowed me to relive a lot of the insights I gained through interview and put a human face to the decision making sensibilities discussed.

Responsive Legality

  • Responsive Legality

    The New Administrative Justice, 1st Edition

    By Zach Richards

    Responsive Legality is an important book about twenty first century justice. It explores the legal and moral values that twenty-first-century public officials use to make their decisions, engaging existing theoretical models of administrative justice and updating them to reflect changed…

    Hardback – 2018-07-26

See more about Responsive Legality: The New Administrative Justice

Responsive Legality

Responsive Legality is an important book about twenty first century justice. It explores the legal and moral values that twenty-first-century public officials use to make their decisions, engaging existing theoretical models of administrative justice and updating them to reflect changed twenty-first-century conditions. Together, these features of twenty-first century public administration are coined ‘responsive legality’. Whereas twentieth-century public officials were generally driven by their concern for bureaucratic rationality, professional treatment, moral judgement and – towards the end of the century – the logics of ‘new managerialism’, the twenty-first-century public official embodies greater complexity in their characteristic pursuit of substantive and procedural justice. Read More

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