Today’s blog post is written by guest blogger – Shilan Shah-Davis who is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Law, UWE. She is also a member of the Research Methods teaching team, so she is very well placed to write this blog post!
Various legal research projects do contain some form of comparison. But it is important to note that not all forms of comparison is comparative legal research.
What are the characteristics of comparative law?
True comparative legal research falls within the ambit of comparative law. Although not a distinct body of law in itself, comparative law entails the comparison of laws between different legal systems to identify and measure the similarities and differences. In other words, a researcher carrying out comparative legal research will compare the law(s) of one country to that of another country (but in can include the comparison of the law(s) of more than two countries) and carefully assess the similarities and differences and what the commonalities, differences and divergences reveal.
What is the purpose of comparative law?
So, what is the purpose of comparative law i.e. why compare different legal systems? There are a range of aims attributed to comparative law. Örücü, for example, explains that the purpose of comparative law may include providing a critical perspective into different legal practice(s), helping courts fill gaps in the law, facilitating unification and harmonisation of laws, assisting law reform and policy development, etc.
These divergent aims of comparative law can be roughly grouped into three broad categories:
- Using comparative law as an instrument of learning i.e. understanding foreign law and culture.
- Using comparative law as a means to contribute to our own law and culture by understanding it better through the process of comparison to another.
- Using the comparative approach as a mechanism to devise universal principles of law / to achieve harmonisation of law.
Criticisms of comparative law
Through the diverse range, and proliferation of, scholarship produced, comparative law has undoubtedly provided vast amounts of knowledge. That being said, various scholars have criticised traditional comparative legal scholarship. It is argued that comparative law’s obsession with, and attendant search for, similarity and harmonisation of laws is unrealistic in a legal universe dominated by complexity, ambiguity and heterogeneity. Similarly, there are issues surrounding the failure of traditional comparative law to go beyond a mere description / collocation of laws and to strive for true comparison and analysis (e.g. taking into account cultural dimensions); the problem of ‘legal transplants’; and the dominance of Eurocentrism in comparative law. Thus, such scholars, whilst still valuing the importance of comparative legal research, question the traditional premises, goals and approaches of comparative law.
Notwithstanding, van Hoecke stipulates, ‘In concrete comparative research projects, it is the aim of the research and the research questions that will imply some form of comparative law (or not)’.Thus, when carrying out comparative research, it is imperative that there are clear aims and objectives which depict the purpose of comparison.
Another question which is commonly asked is how does one compare the laws of different legal systems? There are two aspects to this:
- The level of comparison; and
- The approach taken to compare.
In terms of the level of comparison, the classical distinction is that this can be carried out at a macro or micro level i.e. macro-comparison or micro-comparison. Macro-comparison is concerned with comparing legal systems in their entirety, whereas micro-comparison occurs when specific laws, institutions or problems are compared between the different legal systems.
The functional vs. cultural approach
With regards to the approaches taken to compare, comparative legal research has been traditionally dominated by what is called the ‘functional’ approach. The functional approach focuses on the ‘way practical problems of solving conflicts of interest are dealt with in different societies according to different legal systems’. Here, the premise is that the function of law lies in responding to problems and all most, if not all, societies in essence face the same problems. Consequently, this makes it possible to compare laws and legal institutions, even if they display different doctrinal structures, as long as they fulfil the same function, they are ‘functionally equivalent’.
Another, and perhaps more recent, approach that finds prominence in comparative legal research is the ‘cultural’ comparison approach (sometimes called comparative legal cultures). This approach stems from a post-modern platform and questions the ‘time-honoured principle of functionality by pointing to its systematic bias towards in favor of like solutions and to its inherent insensitivity towards difference’. Cultural comparatists reject the idea of the reduction of law to its function, and instead view national law as an expression and development of the general culture of a society à legal culture. Here, the premise is that the law cannot be clearly understood without understanding the culture in which it sits. Therefore, emphasis is on exploring and understanding the assumptions, values, thought processes and predilections of other cultures in order to understand the concepts, beliefs and reasons behind the law(s). As advocated by Grosswald-Curran, the researcher must engage in ‘cultural immersion’. This ‘requires immersion into the political, historical, economic, and linguistic contexts that molded the legal system, and in which the legal system operates. It requires an explanation of various cultural mentalities’. Moreover, several cultural comparatists reject legal unification as both impossible and undesirable, promoting instead, tolerance for foreign law and for difference in general.
When considering the utility of the comparative approach in the context of a legal project, another issue which needs to be borne in mind by the researcher is whether the approach will be used as a methodology or a method (or both) in the project. When used as a methodology, the comparative research must constitute the overall aim/purpose of the investigation and study.
 E Örücü, ‘Developing Cpmarative Law’ in E Örücü and D Nelken (eds, Comparative Law: A Handbook (Hart 2007) 44.
 See e.g. G Frankenberg, ‘Critical Comparisons: Rethinking Comparative Law’ (1985) 26(2) Harvard International law Journal 439; H P Glenn, ‘The Aims of Comparative Law’, in J M Smits (ed), Elgar Encyclopaedia of Comparative Law (Edward Elgar 2006); V Grosswald Curran, ‘Dealing in Difference: Comparative Law’s Potential for Broadening Legal Perspectives’ (1998) 46 American Journal of Comparative Law 657; W Twining, ‘Globalisation and Comparative Law’, in E Örücü & D Nelken (eds), Comparative Law. A Handbook (Hart 2007).
 M Van Hoecke, ‘Methodology of Comparative Legal Research’ (December 2015) Law and Method, 2
 Ibid 9.
 V Grosswald Curran, ‘Dealing in Difference: Comparative Law’s Potential for Broadening Legal Perspectives’ (1998) 46 American Journal of Comparative Law 657, 659.
 Ibid 661.