Legal opportunity structure

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Legal opportunity structure or legal opportunity is a concept found in the study of law and social movements. It was first used in order to distinguish it from political opportunity structure or political opportunity, on the basis that law and the courts deserved to be studied in their own right rather than being lumped together with political institutions.[1] Legal opportunities are made up of: access to the courts, which may be affected in particular by the law on standing or locus standi, and costs rules; 'legal stock' or the set of available precedents on which to hang a case;[2] and judicial receptiveness. Some of these are more obviously structural than others - hence the term legal opportunity is sometimes preferred over legal opportunity structure.

Legal opportunity has been used as an independent variable to help to explain strategy choice by social movement organisations (SMOs) - e.g. why SMOS adopt litigation rather than protest or political lobbying as a strategy. Other variables or explanatory frameworks it is commonly found alongside include framing,[3] resource mobilization and grievance. It can also be employed as a dependent variable.[4] Legal opportunity theory has been applied to a wide range of policy areas which have seen legal mobilization by social movements, including the environmental,[1][5] animal rights,[1] women's,[1] LGBT,[1][2][6] labor,[6] civil rights,[7] human rights,[8] and disability movements.[3]


  1. ^ a b c d e Hilson, Chris (January 2002). "New social movements: the role of legal opportunity". Journal of European Public Policy. Taylor and Francis. 9 (2): 238–255. doi:10.1080/13501760110120246. 
  2. ^ a b Andersen, Ellen Ann (2006). Out of the closets & into the courts: legal opportunity structure and gay rights litigation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 9780472021574. 
  3. ^ a b Vanhala, Lisa (2011). Making rights a reality?: disability rights activists and legal mobilization. Cambridge New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781107000872. 
  4. ^ Evans Case, Rhonda; Givens, Terri E. (March 2010). "Re-engineering legal opportunity structures in the European Union? The starting line group and the politics of the racial equality directive". Journal of Common Market Studies. Wiley. 48 (2): 221–241. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5965.2009.02050.x. 
  5. ^ Vanhala, Lisa (September 2012). "Legal opportunity structures and the paradox of legal mobilization by the environmental movement in the UK". Law & Society Review. Wiley. 46 (3): 523–556. JSTOR 23252253. doi:10.1111/j.1540-5893.2012.00505.x. 
  6. ^ a b Wilson, Bruce M.; Rodríguez Cordero, Juan Carlos (April 2006). "Legal opportunity structures and social movements: the effects of institutional change on Costa Rican politics". Comparative Political Studies. Sage. 39 (3): 325–351. doi:10.1177/0010414005281934. 
  7. ^ de Fazio, Gianluca (February 2012). "Legal opportunity structure and social movement strategy in Northern Ireland and southern United States". International Journal of Comparative Sociology. Sage. 53 (1): 3–22. doi:10.1177/0020715212439311. 
  8. ^ Suh, Chan S. (September 2014). "Differential participation in professional activism: the case of the Guantánamo habeas lawyers". Mobilization. San Diego State University. 19 (3): 287–307. doi:10.17813/maiq.19.3.q673k4x43063751v.