Book Review: Judging Social Rights

AuthorStefano Civitarese Matteucci
Published date01 February 2016
Date01 February 2016
Subject MatterBook Reviews
Book Reviews
JEFF KING, Judging Social Rights. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, pp. 370, ISBN
9781107400320, £29.99 (pbk).
Judging Social Rights by Jeff King, the winner of the 2014 Birks book prize awarded by
the UK’s Society for Legal Scholars, has essentially two goals: (1) to make an argument
for the constitutionalization of social rights and (2) to suggest what approach the courts
should take when dealing with social rights issues, by providing them with a sort of
compass to navigate the perilous waters of social rights enforcement, inspired by prin-
ciples of judicial restraint. One of the most striking characteristics of the book resides in
its methodological stance. For King, drawing on a range of fields, such as political and
legal theory, sociology and legal doctrine, manages to combine them into a convincing
and compelling defence of why and how we should protect social rights on constitutional
The study is carried out at a highly theoretical level and, in principle, does not refer to
any particular jurisdiction. Yet, at the same time, it has a clear normative commitment
that, according to King, only countries that have a certain political–institutional back-
ground should be capable of undertaking. The first feature of such a background is that
courts operate on a model of common law, to which King adds the following: the
legislature is democratic, effective and rights-respecting; there are nonjudicial adjudi-
cative mechanisms; ‘there is a good faith commitment to protecting social rights ...’;
wealthy groups hold a disproportionate part of political and economic power; the Exec-
utive functions well and is not corrupt; and the branches of government respect the
‘principle of inter-institutional collaboration’ (p. 11).
The United Kingdom is considered the benchmark regarding the existence of such
conditions. One wonders how many other countries around the world possess such
features and to what extent. We may also be puzzled by the fact that the first feature
seems to cut out most of them. To be fair, King adds that courts that operate according to
civil law models, provided they have institutional modes of adjudication resembling the
common law model, could employ the mentioned compass.
This leaves room to speculate what institutional modes can make civil law courts
similar to common law courts. I shall suggest something on this after sketching the main
themes of the book.
As to the first goal, in King’s view, constitutional social rights are an institutional tool
for protecting our social human rights and those social citizenship rights that a commu-
nity may include among its constitutional commitments. There are many arguments in
Social & Legal Studies
2016, Vol. 25(1) 111–137
ªThe Author(s) 2016
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/0964663915625579

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