International Law and Legal Pluralism, British Style
In 2008, the then Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams courted controversy. He stated that recognition of certain aspects of Islamic law, Shari‘a, was essential for Britain in the interest of community cohesion. ‘As a matter of fact’, he said, ‘certain provisions of sharia are already recognised in our society and under our law’. The erudite archbishop was referring primarily to religious principles being valid bases for conscientious objections, and alternative marital dispute resolution methods. But had he chosen to use historical material, Dr. Williams would have had far more to go on.
And that is where my new digital archive project would have come in most handy to the archbishop. Shari‘a – alongside Hindu, Buddhist, Chinese, Jewish, and African customary laws – has indeed been part of the British legal system for a very long time. It has been administered by the final court of appeal for the British Empire, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. This tribunal, which sat in London, was originally an expression of royal prerogative. Then, in 1833, it was given its modern form. Between then and 1998, it has heard around 9,000 appeals from all over the British Empire.
I have taken on the task of making these archives accessible to the wider public. The archives of the Privy Council are a vast and almost entirely untapped resource for research, and it has been my effort over the last three years to build an online research and teaching tool that will inform people about the collection; allow them to search for material; and, in six selected cases, offer full-text scanned copies case papers printed for the Privy Council.
Creating the Privy Council digital website has exposed me to the specific skills, concerns, and eccentricities of working courts, archivists, digital designers, and coders. A lot remains to be done to make this website the valuable tool that it will soon be – and I am currently working with IT staff at the University of Exeter in order to do so. Meanwhile, please do browse through the website and give it a whirl. Your feedback will be most appreciated!