A ‘necessary evil’: Lawyer’s ethics, drugs, addiction and the making of stigma

Stream: Stigma 1
Date: Thursday, 31 March 2016
Time: 1.45 pm – 3.00 pm


Debates about ‘addiction’, agency and responsibility feature in law with increasing frequency. In this paper, I argue that legal conceptualisations of addiction have potential effects, including the potential to stigmatise and marginalise people labelled as ‘addicts’. I also argue that these effects should be understood as ethical problems for lawyers.

This argument is developed through an analysis of interview data I collected with Australian and Canadian lawyers whose work involves addiction.

In making strategic decisions in cases involving drug use, lawyers often make assumptions about their clients’ agency and capacity. Drawing upon feminist science and technology studies and performativity theories, I argue that these approaches can both benefit clients and reinforce drug-related stigma, especially where lawyers construct their clients as non-agentive and irrational. This is of concern because people who use drugs are often already assumed to be non-agentive and irrational, and highly stigmatised and marginalised as a result. I call for more critical work that reflects on the ‘ethics’ of such practices.

Using lawyer Christine Parker’s ‘ethics of care’ model, I conclude with a discussion of how lawyers might navigate cases where ‘addiction’ features in the future, with a view to improving the impact of legal practice on vulnerable populations.


Kate Seear (Presenter), Monash University
Dr Kate Seear is an ARC DECRA Fellow (commencing 2016), practising lawyer, Academic Director of the Springvale Monash Legal Service, and Senior Lecturer in Law at Monash University. She is also an Adjunct Research Fellow in the Social Studies of Addiction Concepts program at the National Drug Research Institute, Faculty of Health Sciences, Curtin University.