The Merriam-Webster Dictionary (2012) defines “status quo” as the “existing condition or state of affairs.” Objectively, law and society is in continuous change. The degree of change, however, is dependent upon the factors that influence and shape the world around us. Approaching this question with an administrational framework in mind, it would be argued that the purpose of law is to inhibit and challenge status quo. This stream of thought is supported by the idea that our country operates on a system of common-law whereby precedent holds influence over future cases thereby ensuring the state of affairs changes, and it certainly does (Act to confer the Electoral Franchise upon Women, 1919; The Constitution Act, 1982; Sexual Assault: Bill C-127 (1983); Firearms: Bill C-68 (1997)).
The problem with the administrative approach is that it is not human in nature or in character, and the status quo is integrated within our social and political systems. In other words, the purpose of law can exist sui generis but the status quo cannot; it requires social networks. The question then becomes: can the status quo exist sui generis? The purpose of law is in constant ebb and flow, and its character is shaped from contemporary milieu and the powers that be.
Applying a critical approach to the question at hand, some argue that the purpose of law is in fact to preserve the status quo. Taking this one step further, the purpose of law can be seen as a hegemonic form of imperial dominance as status quo is retained through the use of force and law. In terms of criminological orthodox theories, the focus has fundamentally concerned the individual, non-elite criminal who is ultimately punished. Various areas of law then further perpetuated the issue at hand as corrections system fail to regularly employ other methods of deterrence, as they were intended ad hoc.
Jeffrey Reiman argues the criminal justice system is designed to legitimize the status quo, which benefits those in control of wealth and resources by justifying the divisions of power (Reiman, 2000). In other words, those who have the power to change a system benefit from the way it currently (mal)functions. He refers to this a “pyrrhic victory,” meaning that a significant amount of harm is done unto society through the criminal justice system as it fails to deal with elite crime, shapes the status quo and ultimately impacts more people than street-street. Inherently, the judicial decision-making process of our court systems influences the status quo by way of precedent; though it can be proactive in terms of social issues or social movements challenging the existing state of affairs. The purpose of law, however, also serves to shift public dissatisfaction in opposition to low-level street crime rather than elite crime. And when it goes after the elites, it is designed to fail. This is because it is a reactionary force. In this respect, the purpose of law is to some extent a “pyrrhic defeat” as it is a win for the wealthy, and beneficiary power holders, but it is loss to society.
Accordingly, both the purpose and enforcement of law helps to maintain the status quo. The purpose of law is then seen as a victory as the story that it tells is that we should be afraid of street-crime, accept the status quo, accept domination and obey the social contract. If by chance you step out of line and try to challenge the status quo, perhaps then you shall bar yourself from attaining employment or land yourself in a prison cell for obstructing the law. This was the case for protestors of the 2010 G20 summit in Toronto. Despite this, their demonstrations were deemed to be “socially useful” as they directly positioned themselves against a more global status quo whereby mega-corporations hold enormous coercion over legal regimes (CBC News, 2012).
There is no doubt in my mind that the purpose of law is a combination of these two steams of thought. It is difficult not to feel positioned in the middle of these arguments as I live and operate within our society but have also had the opportunity to study criminology and sociology at university. On the one hand, the legal system is inherently structured to promote change in status quo. On the other hand, major structural changes to law and society can take years, decades or centuries to take shape and thus may feel as if the status quo is unchanged. Meanwhile, more often than not, slow and progressive change is necessary for the populace to understand the law and the status quo, equally. In the end, our common-law system is a playground whereby judicial decision makers playfully interact with the status quo each day. Perhaps there is a purpose of law, but maybe the purpose and the law has taken on a life of its own.
CBC News. (July 13, 2012). Crown Wants Jail Time For G20 Protester, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/story/2012/07/13/toronto-g20-protester-sentencing.html (accessed on October 2, 2012).
Pavlich, G. 2011. Law & Society, Refined. London: Oxford University Press.
Reiman, Jeff. (2000). Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, The: Ideology, Class and Criminal Justice. Allyn & Bacon: London.
Status Quo. 2012. In Merriam-Webster.com. Retrieved October 4, 2012, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/statusquo