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Vaula Haavisto
An Activity-Theoretical Study of Changing Work Practices in a Finnish District Court

2002; 334 pp.
Price 30 €
ISBN 952-10-0603-X

University of Helsinki
Department of Education

Helsinki University Press



Courts have been regarded as stable, unwavering organizations in a rapidly-changing world, resistant to improvements and difficult to change. Recently, however, it has been argued that civil justice systems around the western world are in crisis and facing serious pressures to change. The implementation of new civil justice arrangements has been considered a fundamental modification of and sea-change in the justice system, on the one hand, but as procedural tinkering and cosmetic faddishness, on the other.

The focus of the present work is on the change in and development of court practices in Finnish district courts. My study revolves around the implementation of the procedural reform in civil matters that was enforced in Finland in 1993, and examines how the reformed procedures are actualized in everyday court proceedings. The essential question concerning the court reform is whether the change constitutes a fundamental transformation, or whether it is something more gradual and stepwise. Drawing on cultural-historical activity theory, the study is theoretically attuned to the presupposition that fundamental change in work requires qualitative change and expansion in the object of the activity, which in this case would mean a shift in the ways in which court cases and clients are worked with. The empirical chapters, devoted to micro-analyses of courtroom interaction, shed light on the nature of the ongoing transition in Finnish courts.

The study is longitudinal and based on comparisons between court proceedings observed before and after the court reform. The data consist mainly of videotaped court hearings and interviews with those involved.

On the basis of my findings, the implementation of the procedural reform appears to be an incremental process in which the new rules are given meaning, shaped and enriched in authentic use in practice by the practitioners themselves. This finding challenges traditional views on implementation as either top-down or bottom-up determined execution, and presents an alternative view on implementation as a learning process with significant potential for expansion in court work.

The major expansive potential lies within the small and gradual changes and novel solutions which may appear trivial but incorporate the potential for deep-seated transformation. The new, informal and actively controlled courtroom discourse, the clients’ contributions to establishing their case and their expanding initiatives in particular, as well as attempts to reach a settlement instead of giving a verdict, are the spearheads of the future that may direct developments in courts most radically. At the same time, they constitute the concrete learning challenges to be worked out by legal practitioners.

Keywords: activity theory, change, civil procedure, courtroom interaction, court reform, implementation, learning