Summaries Legal pluralism is an approach which accepts the possibility that, within any given polity, there can be more than one ‘legal order’ and that the state is not the exclusive source of legal regulation. Nevertheless, defining whether a particular claim or social relation is legally sanctioned is a highly political matter, since law determines rights over people and over economic resources ? land, forest, water and minerals. The experience of colonialism showed how state law could be used to deprive people of their land rights. Private property law during the European experience of industrialisation was used to justify exploitation of labour and relationships of social and economic inequality. On the other hand, one should not romanticise local or customary laws which may equally enforce the interests of oppressive local élites. The merit of the legal pluralism approach is, however, that it forces us to concentrate on the empirical reality behind slogans about the ‘rule of law’; we should always ask, what is the actual effect of a particular normative order — whether state or non?state, public or private — on people’s rights over essential resources and on their ‘access to justice’, in the true sense.