Academic journal article Policy & Practice of Public Human Services

Human Services and Law. (Legal Notes)

Academic journal article Policy & Practice of Public Human Services

Human Services and Law. (Legal Notes)

Article excerpt

We look to the courts a lot these days. It seems that not a single day goes by when courts are not featured on the national newscast. By habit--and, one hopes, still with awe--we cling to courts as a last refuge for justice. Perhaps we grasp too tightly. Courts cannot solve our problems for us. Most often, they mediate interpretations of our own indecisiveness.

This is especially true regarding human services. We turn to courts to deal with one social problem after another: abortion, child and elder abuse, involuntary electroshock treatment, stalking, battered women, repressed memory; parental kidnapping. And the list goes on.

The language lawyers use is a major obstacle, keeping human services workers and lawyers from understanding one another. This column attempts to bridge the language gap. Though language may define our experiences for general thought and communication, law codifies our experiences for legal purposes. It assumes a complex set of relationships to which individuals must adjust. The nuances of law are explained and illuminated by each unique lawsuit. But the core meaning of law is derived from a previous consensus based upon generalizing, abstracting, and categorizing. Sadly, by dividing society into discrete statutes and court opinions, there is a loss of continuity. The stitching of legislative codes is not as seamless as a legislator ever imagines.

Traditionally, law and human services do not have a common communications meeting ground. One leans toward arcane written exactitude, the other to speech that is emotional and intuitive. Law distinguishes only between legal and illegal, rather than between acceptable and unacceptable, or better and best. It consciously does not make distinctions except where society wants a legal separation. The subject matter common to both--social justice--is forcing them to work together on behalf of the same clients. To do this effectively, the professionals of each discipline must quickly learn to understand the language of the other.

Perhaps we don't realize how much law affects human services and human service workers. As human services become ever more complex, law is inevitably implicated. The importance of human service workers being acquainted with legal concepts cannot be understated. The more you understand how critical legal reasoning works, the better equipped you will be to distinguish between policy and practice considerations, and the less often lawyers will make decisions for you that you could readily make yourself. …

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