Decolonising the Law School: Presences, Absences, Silences and Hope

On the 13th of September 2019, I convened at the Law School, University of Bristol, a conference titled, ‘Decolonisation and the Law School.’ The purpose of the conference was to bring together some of the vast array of work legal academics across the UK were doing with reference to decolonial thought, in particular how they were bringing this work into their teaching and their research. I have written about the conference here and here. Decolonial thought in legal education, in my opinion, gives us an opportunity to look at our law schools and re-examine what is present, what is absent, what is silent and where our hope lies.

What do we mean by ‘decolonisation’?

Decolonisation, as an epistemological term, has various schools of thought that are often socio-politically context-dependent and sometimes discipline specific. For example, Tuck and Yang’s incisive essay, written from the context of indigenous peoples in Canada, tells us very categorically that decolonisation means nothing less than the return of stolen land. Scholars often designated as post/anticolonial writers, e.g. Fanon, Said, Bhabha, Nkrumah, Spivak, often engage in temporally situated analysis of the material and immaterial aspects and effects of imperial territorial control and how this control required and requires for survival, particular knowledge articulations and ontological presumptions. The Latin American critical school, such as Maldonado-Torres, Mignolo and Escobar, speaks in terms of ‘coloniality’ – a state of global being that underpins our ways of thinking, implicates capitalism and centres Eurocentric thought. They argue that there are other ways of thinking and living that are not predicted on the destruction of bodies of knowledge and the centring and superiorization of European bodies of thought.

A colonial discipline? Law as global design

Decolonisation forces us to confront the history and effects of imperialism upon our academic practices in law. As legal academics, it is imperative that we explore what decolonisation [as briefly described above] means for us and what the possibility of decolonised law means for the relationship between law and society, the relationship between academics and their students. Decolonisation is also a reflective practice in which we as academics much constantly adapt our own pedagogies and question our own practices. For example, we can reflect on the following questions: How do we become more aware of, and directly mention, how the law came to be, in tandem with a history of legalised dispossession of land and personhood as well as an othering from humanity? How do we acknowledge how that history has influenced how law is taught, what law is taught, and what law is nowand who the law works for? Who the law does not work for? How do we teach law as the study of social order, and elucidate how racial and gendered stratifications in the social are formed and maintained? How do we show to our students, in very concrete terms, exactly how the past bleeds into the present, how we walk side by side with histories’ ghosts, how we breathe coloniality every day, how our collective history is literally present in every single thing we do?

Covid-19 and the decolonial project

Emerging data suggests that people from non-white backgrounds are most affected by the global pandemic. While there is always a temptation in these situations to pit one problem against the other – actions to manage the outcome of the pandemic against decolonial imperatives – I suggest that they are not in conflict. The impact of the pandemic has been to deepen inequality and not level it, contrary to what is often suggested. Admittedly, the virus does not discriminate, but people and structures do. And pre-existing structural divides have been exacerbated by the pandemic – the already privileged locally and globally having better outcomes. This suggests that we should rethink our global design and the knowledges upon which the current design is based. For our dreams for the world are currently too small, our visions currently too limited, our structures unwise, unsustainable and unsafe. We must let our dreams and visions do more than continually reproduce an uneven world. A world where the lots of those who must die so that others may live, have always been unfairly cast. There will probably be much more academic discourse on the confluence between the pandemic and decolonisation, nevertheless, we should remember that fairer structures prior to catastrophes would most likely result in fairer outcomes for all.

The contents of the special issue

The Editorial: Decolonising the law school – presences, absences, silences… and hope

Foluke Ifejola Adebisi

A short overview of the conference, the content and a longer look at the conference keynote

‘Law’ ‘Order’ ‘Justice’ ‘Crime’: Disrupting key concepts through the study of colonial history

J M Moore

This paper explores the delivery of a final year undergraduate module focusing on the role of law, justice, crime and punishment in Britain’s empire. The module was delivered for the first time in late 2018 at Newman University, Birmingham to a group of 13 final year undergraduates. Newman is a small university, whose students are drawn from local working-class communities. The students taking the module were predominately the first people in their family to attend university Whilst all the students on this module had been born in the UK a majority of their grandparents had been born in countries colonised by Britain.

The Ignored Heritage of Western Law: The Historical and Contemporary Role of Islam in Shaping Legal Discourse

Imranali Panjwani

This paper suggests ways in which law syllabuses can be less Eurocentric, more authentic and accurate in their exploration of law, at least from the perspective of Islam.  This means restructuring History of Law and Jurisprudence courses to account for the intellectual contribution of Muslim jurists such as Averroes (Ibn Rushd). Minority case law is not a separate jurisdiction (like shari’ah or Islamic law is perceived to be) but rather a legitimate evidentiary mechanism that can be used within national legal systems to assist the decisions and representations of judges, solicitors and barristers in immigration and asylum cases.

“Why is it my problem if they don’t take part?” The (non)role of white academics in decolonising the law school

Nick Cartwright and ‘Teleola Cartwright

This paper argues that decolonisation must be a shared project, but it must be led by the oppressed, they must have the unfettered power to decide how decolonisation is to happen.  The role of the white man in the process is to selflessly relinquish the power and privilege which he may never understand were not his to begin with and then to do nothing to stand in the way of the project.

Creating the law school as a meeting place for epistemologies: decolonising the teaching of jurisprudence and human rights

Sophie Rigney

This paper examines an attempt to decolonise the curriculum in the re-writing of a module entitled ‘Justice, Law, and Human Rights’, taught at the University of Dundee. I will reflect on the process of choosing the module topics and readings, and the successes and challenges of the course. In particular, I will consider the challenges of whether and how a non-Indigenous Australian can teach a decolonised law curriculum in Scotland. How does a teacher trained in Eurocentric and settler-colonial international law ‘live with honour according to law’, particularly when she is teaching law in the colonial centre of the UK? What should this teacher aspire to achieve in the classroom?

Dismantling the Master’s House: How Black Feminist epistemologies can be and are used in decolonial strategy

Oluwaseun Matiluko

This paper argues that the foregrounding of Black Feminist epistemology is crucial in the decolonisation of university curricula. Focusing specifically on British undergraduate law curricula this paper argues that Black British Feminist modes of thought could produce effective and long-lasting change in the way that we teach and learn about law, that could bring an end to colonial continuities. The first two sections of this paper explain what exactly is meant by “decolonisation”, “Black Feminist epistemology” and “Black British Feminism”, while the last two sections look at how a Black British Feminist decolonisation of legal curricula could take place.

Trust, courage and silence: carving out decolonial spaces in higher education through student–staff partnerships

Ahmed Raza Memon andSuhraiya Jivraj
This paper explores the process of self-empowerment through the concepts of (re-)existence/resistance from decolonial studies in combination with the black feminist critical race theory (CRT) methods of counter-narrating. We discuss the detail of racialised life both as part of surviving and through resisting institutional racism and its affective impact upon us. We argue that the necessary conditions that made it possible to do the work of self-empowerment from our intersectional and multiple positionalities across the student–staff continuum within the neoliberal university have been trust, courage and silence.

Researching colonialism and colonial legacies from a legal perspective

Nandini S. Boodia-Canoo
This paper focuses on the difficulties encountered by socio-legal researchers in approaching questions on law and history, with particular reference to choosing adequate methodologies. Drawing on her personal experience in researching colonial laws and questions on indigeneity, the author outlines established lines of thought while suggesting new ways of interpreting historical material. An argument is made for applying a legal lens to historical discourses for the unique insight that may be derived from such study.

Thanks and Conclusion

The special issue is the result of many dreams and much hidden work and love by so so many people across time and space. I do want to specifically thank the Society of Legal Scholars and the Law School at the University of Bristol who funded the conference financially and logistically; The Editorial Board of the Law Teacher for agreeing to publish it and being very supportive through the process. The contributors for doing the impossible during a pandemic. I hope you all enjoy reading it. May our impossible dreams of worlds otherwise come to pass.


Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. “Decolonization is not a metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, education & society 1, no. 1 (2012).

Fanon, Frantz, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Constance Farrington. The wretched of the earth. Vol. 36. New York: Grove Press, 1963

Fanon, Frantz. Black skin, white masks. Grove press, 2008

Nkrumah, Kwame, Neo-colonialism: The last stage of imperialism. (1967)

Said, Edward W. Culture and Imperialism. Vintage, 2012

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Can the subaltern speak? Reflections on the history of an idea (1988): 21-78

Wa Thiong’o, Ngugi. Decolonising the mind: The politics of language in African literature. East African Publishers, 1992

Bhabha, Homi. “Of mimicry and man: The ambivalence of colonial discourse.” October 28 (1984): 125-133.

Maldonado-Torres, Nelson. “On the Coloniality of Being: Contributions to the Development of a Concept.” Cultural studies 21, no. 2-3 (2007): 240-270

Escobar, Arturo. “Worlds and knowledges otherwise: The Latin American modernity/coloniality research program.” Cultural studies 21, no. 2-3 (2007): 179-210

Quijano, Aníbal. “Coloniality and modernity/rationality.” Cultural studies 21, no. 2-3 (2007): 168-178.


Leave a Reply, Foluke would love to hear your thoughts on this post