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Law as a Last Resort: prosecution decision-making in a regulatory agency

Professor Keith Hawkins
Oxford University
Email: keith.hawkins@oriel.oxford.ac.uk| 

: 9 March 2004
: 1:00pm - 2:30pm
: CARR Seminar Room, H615


In almost all types of legal disputing formalities are employed only as a last resort. Case attrition is a constant feature in the legal system, whether criminal or civil, since pre-trial negotiations are employed to search for solutions to problems that avoid the costs, risks, and delays of trial. Exploring these issues asks questions about the public face of law and the meaning of formal processes, for to prosecute is to enforce the law in both a public and a dramatic way. Hawkins' research outlines and applies a theory of legal decision-making in the context of the regulation of occupational health and safety. It focuses on the forces acting on the creation, handling, and disposal of cases in a regulatory agency, addressing in particular the conditions under which legal officials deal with a problem by electing the public and consequential - but highly unusual - course of going to court.

Using extensive sets of data collected over a fifteen-year period and privileged access to staff of the UK Health and Safety Executive at all levels of seniority, the research analyses decisions at different levels, including those made generally about policy and specifically about individual cases. It shows that although law may be introduced for ostensibly instrumental purposes (advancing the public interest to preserve and protect the health and safety of people in the workplace), the legal process is ultimately imprinted with expressive concerns reflecting symbolic or organizational values and interests.