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At the start of the twentieth century, people who gambled excessively were viewed as morally deviant. Now, they are viewed as suffering from a medical disorder. Legal actors incorporate this medical approach to gamblers into how they apply the law. This shift from a moral to a medical model reorients actors from punishing gamblers to helping them, and thus can be characterized as a positive, humane development. Yet the medical model has drawbacks too. The medical model can be used to justify paternalistic and potentially harmful interventions in the lives of individuals, and it obscures the social context in which individuals’ behaviour occurs. The drawbacks of the medical model can be illustrated with the example of gamblers who undergo personal bankruptcy proceedings. Many of the legal actors practicing bankruptcy law have adopted a medical approach to gamblers. They have reoriented their practices to serve therapeutic ends. Yet, they may be inadvertently harming the bankrupts they are trying to help. The risk of harms created by the medical model can be mitigated by educating legal actors about the social context in which gambling occurs. This article synthesizes research on the social context of gambling in Canada and illustrates how it can inform the practices of legal actors who implement Canadian personal bankruptcy law. The example of Canadian personal bankruptcy law underlines the importance of incorporating social context evidence into the practice law, especially when a legal issue has been medicalized.

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