Contesting Vulnerability

  • Professor Nan Seuffert
  • Professor Trish Mundy
  • Associate Professor Cassandra Sharp
  • Dr Sarah Ailwood

The Contesting Vulnerability theme is engaged in research that analyses the multiple and complex relationships between law, legal processes, and vulnerability.  It addresses questions concerning the forms and shapes of vulnerability defined, represented and conceptualised through the legal system (jurisdiction, legislation, case law, policy, legal rights, legal process) and society, including the association between vulnerability and particular categories of individuals who experience social and political marginalisation and the nature of legal identities ordered around vulnerability.  Research in this theme also explores the use of law and legal processes to address vulnerability including the significance of discourses of vulnerability to necessitating, humanising and legitimising state intervention in the lives of marginalised individuals.  Our research questions how the legal system is authorised through its relationships to legal subjects on the basis of vulnerability.  We also question whether law and legal processes are themselves vulnerable.

Research in this theme also considers the implications of an analytical approach focused on privilege.  Such an approach signals attention to unearned privilege and advantage as well as marginalisation or vulnerability.  It alerts us to the relationship between vulnerability and privilege and of the production of vulnerability by privilege, rather than approaching vulnerability as an inherent characteristic of ‘vulnerable’ people.  An approach focused on privilege considers how vulnerability is constructed in relationship to privilege, and how analysis and action shifts if we focus on privilege rather than (or as well as) vulnerability.

Questions of vulnerability, and related issues of marginalisation and incapacity, are emerging as key law reform and human rights issues in Australia, as well as in overseas and international jurisdictions.  To this end research in this theme engages with broader questions about the political and social implications of law’s relationship to vulnerability.  Research considers how different legal practices (eg law reform, public interest litigation, community legal education) address issues surrounding vulnerability, as well as how the legal system might generate vulnerability.  Ultimately, research asks what is gained and lost through framing social and political claims in appeals to the law in terms of vulnerability.

Ethical and practical concerns surrounding legal research and the responsibilities of researchers when approaching this research, particularly empirical or law reform driven research, also form part of the research agenda of this theme.

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She speaks, but who hears? Australian women’s voices, listening, law reform

 Professor Nan Seuffert, Associate Professor Cassandra Sharp, Dr Sarah Ailwood, Dr Rachel Loney-Howes

 Women’s voices – of experience, as ‘speaking out’, as storytelling and as testimony – are drivers of law reforms that shape Australian society, both historically and currently, particularly in relation to violence against women. Women’s voices have challenged the exclusions, shapes and limits of the categories of Australian law and called for redress of newly named and recognised legal harms, capturing the attention of the public and demanding responses from legislators, institutions and the justice system. They have informed law reform from nineteenth-century married women’s property laws driven by the need for women to escape violent relationships, to the 2018 Tasmanian #letherspeak campaign.  This project aims to produce new knowledge regarding the dynamic relationship between women’s voices, how they are listened to and heard, and how they influence law reform, in three areas identified as Australian national priorities: domestic and family violence; sexual violence; and sexual harassment in the workplace. Through a focus on listening in the past and present, we trace whose voices have been heard, and who has been silenced, seeking to promote the inclusion of all Australian women in the substance and process of the law.



Professor Nan Seuffert


Dr Scarlet Wilcock, University of Sydney and Dr Lyndal Sleep, Griffith University

This interdisciplinary law and society project is funded by the UOW Community Engagement Grant Scheme ($13k), in partnership Economic Justice Australia (the peak body for community law centres focussed on social security issues).  Its aims are threefold: to generate a knowledge base of barriers to accessing social security faced by DV victims; to produce a set of materials to be used to improve the information, support and advocacy that members provide to DV victims; and to produce a report for use in advocating for policy reform.


Haunting National Boundaries: Refugee Law and Policy and Asylum Seekers who are Sexual Minorities
Professor Nan Seuffert 

Engaging with and developing postcolonial theory, this project analyses refugee law and asylum seeker policy in Australia in relation to ‘sexual minorities.’  It asks what a more concerted focus on colonial genealogies of ‘sexuality’ can bring to: 1) analysis of the stories of origin of international law; 2) the operation of concepts such as ‘discretion’ and ‘credibility’ in the jurisprudence determining refugee claims; and 3) critical understandings of Australia’s controversial asylum seeker detention policies and practices.

Seuffert, Nan (2017) ‘Queering international law’s stories of origin: Hospitality and homophobia’ in Otto, D (ed) Queering International Law: Possibilities, Alliances, Complicities, Risks (Routledge, NY).

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RECENT PROJECTS __________________________________________________________________________ 

Best Practice Evaluation for an Integrated Domestic Violence Intervention Service
Professor Nan Seuffert and Professor Trish Mundy

Professor Nan Seuffert and Dr Trish Mundy have been engaged by the YWCA NSW to undertake an evaluation of the Domestic Violence Intervention Service (DVIS) based in Nowra and servicing the wider Shoalhaven region. The evaluation project is funded through the National Australia Bank (NAB) Community Impact Grants Program 2016. The research project develops and applies a best practice model for evaluating integrated domestic violence services. The DVIS is unusual in its crisis intervention model in that it is a community-based domestic violence service that is physically co-located within a police station. Its goals are to work closely with police, Domestic Violence Liaison Officers, police prosecutors and other key community based agencies with the aim of enhancing support and outcomes for women and children experiencing domestic and family violence. This project will have significant benefits for women and children experiencing domestic and family violence and will enhance knowledge of ‘best practice’ in the context of crisis intervention service delivery.


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