Cultural Legal Studies

  • Associate Professor Marett Leiboff
  • Associate Professor Cassandra Sharp
  • Dr Luis Gómez Romero
  • Karina Murray 

The Cultural Legal Studies theme of the Legal Intersections Research Centre is engaged in research which considers how the practices of lawyering and legal interpretation are affected by factors that are usually thought of as being outside the realm of law.  Drawing upon popular culture (tv, film, comics, superheros) and popular cultures more broadly (language, semiotics, literature, biography, history, theatre, visual art, cultural studies, legal theory), the research carried out by the theme includes the reading and rereading of the texts of law in order to understand how and why law positions itself as it does, it explores attitudes and preconceptions about law and justice by lawyers and law students and the community more broadly, and is developing research into the representations of public interest litigation in the popular imagination.  Our research also explores the techniques and methodologies that can be deployed in order to undertake these modes of inquiry.

Increasingly, scholars are looking beyond traditional legal narratives in order to better understand the various ways in which law is understood and perceived by the general public. Given the influential effects wrought by focuses upon cultural diversity and plurality, this interdisciplinary field invites the exploration of law as it is conceived and portrayed particularly within visual cultural forms. Work in this diverse and seemingly amorphous field is largely connected by a desire to explore the meaning and representation of law within a variety of cultural contexts, and as a body of scholarship it describes the site of a complex encounter between contemporary culture and law. Our Cultural Legal Studies research is fundamentally directed towards the overarching concern of social justice through seeking to expose the gaps and limitations inherent in conventional accounts of the law.  In this sense, the research undertaken is unique, as an integration of the theoretical with the practical, and empirical research with techniques derived from a range of disciplinary homes.  To this end, our research informs the practices of public interest litigation, from research that ascertains attitudes to justice to research that uncovered the loss of cultural, historical, and social knowledge and its impact on the interpretation of the law.

Back to top

Defining the Field
Associate Professor Cassandra Sharp, Associate Professor Marett Leiboff and 
Dr Luis Gómez Romero

This continuing project set out to name the field of cultural legal studies, and to investigate how law is shaped by the popular cultures in which it exists. The project has produced a foundational collection edited by Cassandra Sharp and Marett Leiboff and includes a significant contribution by Luis Gomez Romero, and key scholars from the field . Cassandra Sharp and Marett Leiboff eds Cultural Legal Studies: Law’s Popular Cultures and the Metamorphosis of Law Routledge 2015 

This project began to take shape through a Cultural Legal Studies Methodologies Symposium, Law and Popular Cultures Theme, Legal Intersections Research Centre, Friday 21 September 2012, University of Wollongong organised by Cassandra Sharp and funded by the Legal Intersections Research Centre.

Back to top

Popular Culture – Talkin’ ‘Bout Law’s Generations
Associate Professor Marett Leiboff

This project asks whether ‘non-legal’ everyday knowledge affects how different generations of lawyers read and interpret case law.  Through empirical methodologies it seeks to determine whether lawyers draw on generationally grounded knowledge to carry out the practice of legal interpretation.

Funded by UOW University Research Committee Small Grant: “Talkin’ ‘bout law’s generations: am empirical and jurisprudential investigation into the reading of legal cases by different generations of lawyers”.

Leiboff, Marett. ‘”Ditto”: Law, Pop Culture and Humanities and the Impact of Intergenerational Interpretative Dissonance’’ (2012) 36 Australian Feminist Law Journal 14.

Superheroes and Retributive Justice
Associate Professor Cassandra Sharp

This project seeks to reconceptualise the notion of the superhero within a legal context.  The superhero incorporates elements of vigilantism – the caped crusader ‘taking the law into his own hands’ – representing an erosion of the legitimacy of the law to effect justice. The project considers whether the continued existence of the superhero depends upon law’s inadequacy to achieve justice and highlights what justice actually means.

Sharp C. ‘“Riddle Me This…” Can the public desire for justice only be achieved by vigilante superheroes?’ Justice Framed: Law in Comics and Graphic Novels (2012) 16 Law Text Culture 353. 

Legal ‘Street Smarts’ or, the Formation of Vernacular Legal Theories Through Popular Culture
Dr Luis Gomez Rómero

This project is aimed to challenge, within a jurisprudential frame, the conception of popular culture as the ‘subjugated knowledge’ of the wide public, who is regarded as an amorphous set of passive victims of cultural elites who, through the control of cultural industry, produce the popular mindset that defines legal and political agendas. On the contrary, popular culture devises vernacular legal theories –i. e., cultural legal theories that raise important questions about the premises that guide legal practices and ideologies –whose cultural meaning is continuously constructed and deconstructed both by the ‘producers’ and the ‘consumers’ of popular cultural artefacts. This project will thus address the trends and crises of late capitalism, legal modernity, and globalization as they are expressed and most urgently challenged through forms of popular culture as comics, children’s best-sellers, video games and blockbuster films in different cultural contexts (e. g., the Anglo-American culture and Spanish-speaking cultures).

Dahlman, Ian and Gómez Romero, Luis (eds.). Justice Framed: Law in Comics and Graphic Novels:  Law Text Culture 16.

Back to top

Law’s Stories – Law and the Humanities
Associate Professor Marett Leiboff

This project explores law’s place within the humanities (the liberal arts, visual and representational arts, literature, cultural studies, and history).  It examines law’s historical origins within the humanities, and considers the role that the humanities play in the practices of legal interpretation, the training of lawyers, and law’s influences in the production of the artefacts of the humanities. The subject also investigates how the humanities are used within legal texts, including cases, how they inform the practices of legal interpretation, and what happens when the courts are required to make decisions about cultural products, including visual arts and their representations.

Leiboff, Marett (ed). (2012) 36 Law and Humanities Futures: Australian Feminist Law Journal (Special Issue). 

The Power of Stories in the Transformation of Identity and Ethics Among Law Students
Associate Professor Cassandra Sharp

This project uses an empirical and interdisciplinary methodology, blending law and cultural studies, to explore the influence of popular culture on legal education.  This project offers a new scholarly perspective on how law students use representations of law in popular culture to create and construct identity and ethical meaning.

Sharp C. ‘“Represent a Murderer…I’d never do that!” How students use stories to link ethical development and identity construction’ in M. Robertson et al (eds) The Ethics Project in Legal Education (London, Routledge) 2011. 

Gaming Justice: Video Games and the Political Construction of Legal Pluralism
Dr Luis Gomez Rómero

This project will analyse the explicit or implicit political or legal ideals represented in the normative frame of five very popular narrative video games: Grand Theft Auto; L. A. Noire; Heavy Rain, Red Dead Redemption and Batman: Arkham City. Its aim is to diagnose the cultural disillusionment with contemporary discourses that found the State’s political legitimacy and justify the criminal justice system. This research will therefore undertake a thick jurisprudential reading of narrative video games, placing the legal discourses embedded in them in a comprehensible and meaningful jurisprudential frame for the first time. The research will a) provide a jurisprudential perspective on the legal assumptions and the critiques of law and justice deployed in the medium; b) critically evaluate their political programme and social ideals; c) reconsider the connections between legal discourses and broader forms of cultural expression; and so d) advance both methods and theories in law and cultural studies.

‘Think Like a Person: a New Approach to Legal Method and Ethics Instruction’
Karina Murray

PhD commenced April 2012  Supervisors: Associate Professor Cassandra Sharp and Associate Professor Chris Barker

Upon entering law school, students often receive the message, ‘you need to start thinking like a lawyer!’. Yet alarmingly, research shows that lawyers (and law students) suffer stress, anxiety and depression at a rate significantly higher than the general population. These projects seek to review the traditional approach to legal method and make useful links between ‘legal decision making’ models and ‘ethical decision making’ models. The projects take an interdisciplinary approach including cultural studies as well as drawing heavily on the current ‘wellness’ literature of such academics as Kreiger and Sheldon.

‘Why teaching ‘legal ethics’ doesn’t create ‘ethical lawyers’: taking a ‘mature’ approach to ethics instruction’ Funded by LIRC Small Grant 2012 project

Karina Murray, ‘A book-end approach to ethics’ in Leon Wolff and Maria Nicolae (eds), The First Year Experience in Law: A New Beginning? (Halstead Press, 2013) Chapter 6 (pending) 

Theatrical Jurisprudence
Associate Professor Marett Leiboff

This project uses the insights of theatre theory to reclaim the body from law’s valorisation of the word. The theatrical reminds us that our actions and responses exist in the moment, rather than the narrative account of our conduct that the law prefers.

Leiboff, Marett and Sophie Nield (ed). (2010) 14 Law’s Theatrical Presence: Law Text Culture (Special Issue). 

Leiboff, Marett. ‘The main thing is to shut them out’ The Deployment of Law and the Arrival of Russians in Australia 1913-1925: An histoire’ (2011) 15 Law Text Culture 234 

Legal Accounts of Visual Culture
Associate Professor Marett Leiboff

At a time when there is profound realignment of the means by which visual culture is created, this project explores judicial encounters with the visual, in particular, focussing on: the reading and interpretation of the visual as an aesthetic; as an engagement with textually diffuse meanings; or as an exercise in connoisseurship.

Leiboff, Marett. ‘Do You See What I See? Iconic Art and Culture and the Judicial Eye in Australian Law’ in Richard Sherwin and Anne Wagner, eds. Law, Culture, and Visual Studies (Verlag, Springer) 2013. 

Back to top


An Eye for an Eye: Public Pursuit of Justice
Associate Professor Cassandra Sharp

This project employs focus group qualitative methodology in an attempt to fill an empirical gap in understanding public perceptions of justice.  The project has two main aims: to explore how Australian media, and in particular news stories about justice, capture the public imagination and contribute to perceptions about the way law ‘should’ operate; and to question the role of law in achieving (or at the very least promoting) justice.

Funded by UOW University Research Committee Small Grant, ‘The Pursuit of Justice: An Empirical Exploration into the Role of Media in Public Perceptions of Law and Justice’ 2010 and LSSS Grant 2011. 

Exploring Fictional Popular Culture Through Empirical Methodologies
Associate Professor Cassandra Sharp

This project explores the connections between popular cultural representations of law in television programs and how audiences make meaning about the world of legal practice. By examining how audiences transform meaning in this way, the project offers insights into the expectations the public has of the law and the values it upholds.

Sharp, C. ‘Let’s See How Far We’ve Come: The Role of Empirical Methodology in Exploring Television Audiences’ in J. Silbey and P. Robson (eds) Law and Justice on the Small Screen (Hart Publishing) 2012. 

Cultural Legal Studies Methodologies
Associate Professor Cassandra Sharp and Associate Professor Marett Leiboff

This project considers the relationship between law and popular culture within a ‘cultural legal studies’ movement. It is a field that invites the merging of disciplinary boundaries and allows for plurality in the ways that law can be understood.  It explores and explicates the world of cultural legal studies within the context of popular culture and with particular attention to methodology to seek to identify and frame what is meant by the term ‘cultural legal studies’ and to illuminate the methodologies and practices that shape studies of law and popular culture and law and humanities research that draws upon the practices of cultural legal studies.

Cultural Legal Studies Methodologies Symposium, Law and Popular Cultures Theme, Legal Intersections Research Centre, Friday 21 September 2012, University of Wollongong.

Back to top