José Angelo Estrella-Faria
Secretary-General, International Institute for the Unification of Private Law (UNIDROIT)
Law is one of the cornerstones of civilisation and a basic condition for community life. Private law is probably the oldest branches of law and for thousands of years it has provided the basis for human interaction and social organisation, for instance through the enforcement of commercial contracts, the protection of family relations and the regulation of property interests. In view of its institutional role in organised human life, the quality of the law is recognised as an essential component of an orderly functioning political, social and economic system. Making good laws presupposes good knowledge of the sphere of human life to be regulated (i.e. employment, environment, trade, human rights) and adequate evaluation of the social and economic impact of any proposed new law. This requires an interdisciplinary knowledge that transcends by far the limits of the legal profession.
However, a law is only as good as its application in practice. The respect for individual or collective rights assumes that those rights are known and relied upon. Knowledge about the law thus means that the addressees of legal norms are aware of their rights and able to invoke them. A great deal still needs to be done, through the development of institutional links or supporting networks of learning organisations, to ensure that legal knowledge reaches beyond court benches and law schools, and that, conversely, knowledge from the fields of social and natural sciences find their way into law making and legal thinking. There is no development without law, but also no law without knowledge. An agenda for knowledge must be seen as an indispensable component of an agenda for development.