In this Q&A, DMU’s Prof. Kevin Bampton discusses the relevance of studying Law to the Sustainable Development Goals, and how sustainability has been a thread throughout his career…

Firstly, what’s your personal link to sustainable development? How did you first get interested in these issues, and how does it link to your professional/personal life?

The genesis and development of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has been the background to almost all of my professional career in law. In the late 80’s I was recruited into the British Council as their Legal Adviser with a specific role of addressing cross-cutting development issues. I quickly transitioned into working on Foreign Office, EU and World Bank projects development projects which involved what was then called “Aid Conditionality”. This embedded many of the SDG outcomes, but as a condition of receiving essential aid funding.

When I moved on to be Special Constitutional and Legal Adviser for the United Nations, it became obvious that this was not a consensual or sustainable way of addressing development priorities, but that there was an appetite at grass roots in less-developed and in developed countries to hold governments to accounts for how they managed the inevitable trade-offs between sustainable development priorities.

We embedded the prototypes of SDGs into national level into constitutions and other legislation. My “favourite” was  how we did this in building them into the Principles of National Policy in the Constitution of Malawi in the 1990s. I look at them now and they still seem fresh and progressive.

In more recent years, I have been engaged in both the work towards the architecture of the SDGs and the implementation of them through innovative development projects, particularly around SDG16. When we secured the inclusion of the elimination of Human Trafficking being included as a specific goal in SDG16, I was almost as pleased as the steps made in augmenting the Modern Slavery Act.

I was part of the five person delegation that went to the UN in New York to spearhead the implementation of that plan with the Minister for Modern Slavery and the Heads of the key implementation bodies in 2017, so it was wonderful to be back there a year later with DMU following it up. Of course you have to think global and act local.

As well as embedding SDGs in the Law School, I have been working in my home city of Derby. Over a period of three years, I worked with civil society leaders to persuade all parties in the City Council to sign up to the UN Global Compact. This is a soft law commitment that a City is going to work towards and be accountable for progress in delivering SDGs. They signed up to it last year. Derby is the only city to have done so in the UK.

How do you see the UN Sustainable Development Goals as relating to the work of law professionals and the study of Law?

Almost 25 years ago, I was commissioned by the UK Foreign Office to write guidance for the UK Government called “Law, Good Government and Development.” It was very well-received internationally, even though it called for a rethink amongst lawyers and development bodies.

It called for governments to look at the Rule of Law as more that good lawyering and legal compliance. Outcomes-based law, which delivers solutions to narrow legal problems, is not really the right way to go about things. Work in the UK to develop problem-based family courts (which look at youth justice and child welfare issues in the context of interdisciplinary and whole family contexts) are an example.

Moving away from professional-centred approaches which make law more complex and inaccessible, and moving towards more self-help and legal education is vital. More importantly, viewing law as an instrument to develop and educate and manage development trade-offs, rather than resolve disputes is what the future project of legal practice and education should be.

For example, there will always be issues about whether a town needs the economic prosperity a factory might bring more than the greenfield areas that it is going to obliterate. However, the legal process and lawyers, acting within the context of international norms, can help achieve a balance. However, it takes a change from an approach which centres on who has the best lawyer to one where the lawyer facilitates the reasoning to achieve the best/most just/most ethical way to balance competing interests with the aim of achieving development goals.

We tend to think of lawyers as self-interested, but many of the most active contributors to the development agenda are brave and selfless lawyers.

At the recent Association of Human Rights Institutes Conference in Edinburgh, I remarked how many amazing lawyers I have worked with who have given up their lives in the cause of sustainable development, justice and human rights. The goal of legal education is to create fearless and brave advocates for the future of humanity.

What is already happening in DMU Law courses linking to sustainability that you feel really proud about?

De Montfort Law School’s Mission and Vision

SDG16 is at the heart of legal education – or should be. The Law’s School’s mission is “to promote justice through knowledge.” The Law School has a longstanding reputation in the area of Environmental Law from way before it was a “cool” area of law to study and research in, and it still supports a vibrant PG programme. In fact our distance learning PG programmes in Food Law, Human Rights, International Business etc. are some of the most distinctive in their promotion of a clear development ethos.

The undergraduate team within curricula like Gender and the Law and Social Justice prepare the way for this, as does activity like the Law Clinic and Street Law – engaging students in the theory and reality of delivering justice.  Sustainable development is not just a badge we stick on our courses, but it’s bedded into to the DNA of our legal academics, resulting in amazing work on the interface of climate change and human rights, for example.

What would you like to see happen in the future to further embed sustainability in Law courses?

There’s always so much more to do! Most importantly, we don’t want to replicate the “Aid Conditionality” model  in education.

Telling students about SDGs and their importance as if they were a fact of life or an assessed requirement of courses misunderstands the nature of the SDGs. For example, we could make a law to ban single use plastics, but if CO2 and global warming is a real challenge, we have to make sure that the alternatives are not displacing the issue, that it is causing problems elsewhere through the creation of poverty and environmental degradation.

We want our students to use “SDG-thinking” as a complex way of interpreting their academic lives, but also their personal and later professional lives.

We need our law students to interrogate their learning and lives in a more sophisticated way as dealing with complex trade-offs in a progressive and recursive process. Part of that process will be achieved by academics highlighting the roadmap of “SDG-thinking” that students already travel through. Part is also giving them tools and vehicles for them to own the changes in behavior and the changes they can catalyse.

Law students need always to be aware of the unique privilege of being able to “think like a lawyer”, but also to realise how impoverished that thinking is, if not seen as a tool for achieving the sorts of goals that the SDGs stand for.

This piece is the first of several by DMU staff reflecting on linkages between their teaching practice and sustainable development. DMU’s Law LLB undergraduate programme is one of six courses taking part in the 2018/19 project to enhance links to Education for the Sustainable Development Goals. Click here to learn more about courses at De Montfort Law School.