THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Social Science blog

19 December 2017

The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council: a short introduction, sources for research and appeal case metadata.

Over the next few weeks, here on the Social Science blog and on the Digital Scholarship blog, Jonathan Sims and Sarah Middle will discuss work done at the British Library to provide insights into appeal cases heard by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC).  

To start us off, here is some background about the Judicial Committee (JCPC) itself with signposts to resources to support your research, and a brief consideration of whether metadata describing Privy Council appeal cases and judgments can be exploited more effectively.

The court and its jurisdiction

The Privy Council has long acted as a final court of appeal for an extraordinarily wide range of legal cases including both civil and criminal appeals. Details of the wide jurisdiction, current role and powers of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) are set out on its website. Perhaps foremost among these is the Judicial Committee’s role to act as a final appeal court for a number of Commonwealth countries. Hearings are often filmed and made available online.

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Courtroom three at the Supreme Court, London

Today the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) shares a home with the Supreme Court at the Middlesex Guildhall in Parliament Square, London, where appeals to the JCPC are typically heard in Courtroom Three. However until early this century JCPC hearings took place in a chamber accessed via an unobtrusive door to the Privy Council offices in Downing Street, opposite the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The Soane Museum’s website includes drawings from Sir John’s designs for these offices (see below, Soane …). However the grandeur evident in drawings and in an 1846 illustration (see below, Sitting …) gave way to more cramped and modest conditions by the time of a 1921 appeal against the judgment of the Lincoln Consistory Court (see below, Archdeacon …).  Depicting an earlier era, Christian Schussele’s mid nineteenth century painting Benjamin Franklin appearing before the Privy Council, depicts a rich and vivid spectacle of the court sitting in 1774 in the Royal Cockpit. (See below, Isaacson.)

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The corner of Downing Street and Whitehall

The origins of the Privy Council’s jurisdiction are introduced on the JCPC website, and background commentary about the Privy Council records at the UK National Archives suggests that the Council's judicial function had become distinguishable from legislative and administrative roles by the sixteenth century. With the creation of the Judicial Committee in 1833 during the Lord Chancellorship of Henry Brougham colonial appeals to the Privy Council were ensured to be heard by professional lawyers, (see below Lobban) and by the start of the twentieth century the JCPC “was the final appellate court over a vast global Empire” of colonies, possessions and self-governing Dominions. (Mohr) A YouTube video embedded on the JCPC website provides a brief and engaging history of the court and its jurisdiction.

Biographical information about Privy Council judges can be found across the British Library collections. Archival collections including the Coleridge Family Papers. (MS 85495-86488), Hardwicke Papers (including five, indexed volumes of “appeal-causes before the Privy Council, 1722-1769”, Add. MS 36,216 - 36,220.), India Office Records and private papers, papers of several Lord Chancellors and Prime Ministers (for example, Robert Peel Add 40181 - 40617 and William Gladstone Add. 44086-44835) offer glimpses into the lives and work of  Privy Council judges, the judicial business of the Privy Council, and sometimes into specific cases. These can be searched on the archives catalogue. Photographs and biographical detail of the first colonial judges appointed to the Judicial Committee including Henry De Villiers (South Africa), Samuel James Way (Australia), Samuel Strong (Canada), and Ameer Ali (India) can be found in British Library’s journal and newspaper collections.

Speaking in 2013 and highlighting the modern internationalism of today’s JCPC, Lord Neuberger drew attention to the long-standing position that, although usually sitting for convenience in Westminster, the JCPC applies the law of the state in question.  The Privy Council has considered law from varied locations and legal traditions including Common Law, acts of the Oireachtas from the Irish Free State, French, Spanish and Romano-Dutch law, Venetian and Sardinian law, customary law from Africa, Ottoman and Chinese law, and Hindu, Islamic and Buddhist law from India. (Haldane p. 154) Research indicates that the huge majority of cases originated in India, with the next highest number attributed to Canada. (See Richardson and below Campbell)

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High Court, Calcutta, now Kolkata. (Photo Stretton, W.G., 1875, British Library Online Gallery)

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Recorder’s Court, Rangoon, now Yangon (Photo Jackson, J. 1868, British Library Online Gallery)

The JCPC has heard appeals from courts closer to London too. These include Admiralty and Prize appeals, cases from ecclesiastical courts, and cases pertaining to issues of congenital or temporary mental ill-health, jurisdictions inherited from the High Court of Delegates in the 1830s. During the twentieth century, the court also heard certain cases concerning patents and copyright, and appeals in disciplinary cases from a small number of professional bodies.

Getting to grips with Privy Council appeals, judgments and printed case papers

A snapshot cross section of the court’s caseload is given in Alex Giles’ blog piece Stories from the Empire: Privy Council Cases 1917-1920 while the cultural and international legal significance of particular cases are vividly brought to life in panels from the 2014 exhibition A Court at the Crossroads of Empire: Stories from the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council through the stories of individual litigants and lawyers.

 A more comprehensive representation of the JCPC case load than the selective coverage distributed throughout numerous law reports can be found in collections of official transcripts of the judgments. Very substantial collections are available online and bound into volumes of case papers. The website of the British and Irish Legal Information Institute BAILII provides easy access to a collection of judgment transcripts digitised from the JCPC’s own collection. More or less equivalent is the collection of judgments bound in with the British Library volumes of JCPC case papers, although some variations in coverage and numbering are evident in comparison with the BAILII set.  

In turn, the case papers, which sometimes amount to thousands of pages for an individual case, provide far more insight to individual cases and the operation of justice than the judgments are capable of offering. Largely made up of records of proceedings reprinted and authenticated from those in the originating courts and distributed for the purposes of the Privy Council appeal hearings, they provide rare opportunities to examine historical law in action in courts around the world. As Weait says of transcripts of criminal trials and their value for teaching law, (see below) the case papers reflect the vibrant dispute, and dialogue of proceedings providing opportunity to take a “critically reflective stance” on the “distillation, reduction and abstraction” of process that is provided in “monologue” appellate judgments.

However, as studies of legal case files also suggest, the printed records of proceedings also offer material traces of how law absorbs and constructs the wider social world through authenticated documentary and sworn evidence. It was the level of detail in spatial representations demanded of documentary evidence that one researcher valued. The information was simply unavailable elsewhere. Valued too was the archive of nuanced language and insight on private devotional practices that offered a reflection of a less homogenous, cultural identity than had commonly circulated in contemporary political narrative.  Further insights afforded by the case papers are illustrated in another of Giles’ blog pieces and in summaries of talks by legal historians at a symposium held at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies.

The few accessible and comprehensive sets of these internationally significant papers are all located in Britain, distributed to archival collections following the disposal of the appeals.  This includes of course the British Library set. (Please note that printed cases and records of proceedings for selected cases beyond the scope of this set can also be found among the Hardwicke papers and India Office Records at the British Library.)  A catalogue entry on the National Archives website helpfully places another set of the printed case papers in context of the wider collections of Privy Council records, although it does not currently facilitate access to the individual cases. Fortunately, free online access to a subset of the case papers is provided by BAILII (British and Irish Legal Information Institute). Case papers for a small selection of appeals are also provided on Exeter University website Privy Council Papers.  

Elsewhere online resources have focused on cases from specific geographical areas and historical periods. These include the Ames Foundation’s Annotated Digital Catalogue of Colonial Appeals (see below, O’Connor and Bilder) whose principal project provides digital images of printed cases in appeals from the American colonies prior to independence, and draws extensive metadata for each case from Privy Council records including the Acts of the Privy Council of England (Colonial Series) and the original Privy Council Registers  and the relevant parts of the PC 1 series (see below, Privy …). Another example is that provided by Macquarie University, which provides detailed information about pre-1850 Australian cases. Additionally, the Anglo-Indian Legal History site by Mitch Fraas contains data about the first 50 appeals from India (1679-1774).

For the final part of today’s blog we look at the how the metadata that describes the nineteenth and twentieth century judgments underpins some of the online services described above, how it facilitates discovery of and access to these resources, and how it might be further exploited.

Exploiting the appeal case metadata for collection discovery and research

The relevant section of BAILII (British and Irish Legal Information Institute) allows the user to search the text of the JCPC judgments, browse the judgments by year and view digitised versions of case documents, where available (see Whittle’s article for more information). Access to the BAILII documents is additionally provided by the LawCite search interface from AustLII, the Australasian Legal Information Institute. Many of the BAILII cases can also be explored and accessed based on the geographical location of the originating courts and the year of the JCPC judgment via a resource provided by IALS (Institute of Advanced Legal Studies), as well as via the University of Exeter’s Privy Council Papers resource.

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IALS visualises selected JCPC cases based on their geographical location and judgment year

The brief details describing each appeal case, its judgments and case papers (the metadata) in several of the above online resources is based on information used to identify and manage collections of judgments and case papers formerly housed at the Privy Council Office in Downing Street. Initially in Microsoft Word documents, these were donated to several institutions including the British Library.

In a single document E.C. Stretton recorded the contents of 137 volumes entitled Printed Cases in Indian and Colonial Appeals (now part of the series PCAP 6 covering cases heard between 1792 and 1878 in the catalogue of the UK National Archives). In addition to the origin of the appeal and details of the parties and documents included for each case in a particular volume, the Stretton metadata also includes, in some cases, information about the outcome of the appeal and the names of presiding Privy Council judges.  Much of this information is now searchable in the catalogue of Exeter University’s Privy Council Papers resource.

Additional annual documents that acted as an index to cases decided between 1860 and 1998, providing basic data in a tabular structure, also underpins some of these online resources. While acting as a helpful finding aid used to identify the year and judgment number of a given case the detail and structure of this data made it immediately obvious that the information could be used to ask questions about the whole body of cases.

With such a huge body of cases to negotiate, stretching over so many years, would an approach that offers some perspective on the case load as a whole be valuable?  Giles suggests that there were around 140 cases per year between 1917 and 1920 - we have seen their wide geographical and cultural scope - and behind each case lies a rich and extensive source in the case papers.

At the British Library this tabular metadata was converted to a spreadsheet that forms the basis for data visualisation experiments that will be outlined in future blog posts.  Drawing inspiration from digital humanities projects we wondered how this structured data could be exploited to ask questions about the JCPC case load as a whole or to facilitate discovery and retrieval of judgments and case papers relevant to particular research interests. Could the data facilitate easier understanding of the geographic distribution of the origins of the appeals, or demonstrate how this distribution was structured by year? Could it help to investigate typical duration of cases (from appeal year to judgment year) and explore relationships between duration and the distance of the originating court from Westminster? Could we determine which appellants or respondents occurred most frequently in the dataset? What other connections and relationships could be discovered to facilitate research or help with identification of relevant appeals and case papers for further investigation?

This is the first in a series of posts about a project to make information about JCPC appeal cases easier to discover. Later posts on the Digital Scholarship blog will look at ways of visualising the information about them:

Many of the resources discussed above are signposted in a collection guide on the British Library website: Judicial Committee of the Privy Council appeal cases.

Further Reading

Some of the resources listed below contain links to online subscription websites. If you or you institution do not have a subscription to these websites they can be accessed in the British Library reading rooms.

The image also can be seen on Leslie Katz’ blog 

  • Soane Museum: collections online: drawings http://collections.soane.org/drawings : architectural & other: office of works : London, Board of Trade and Privy Council Offices, Whitehall & Downing Street: designs for new offices and scheme for the improvement of Downing Street, 1823-33 (284 catalogued drawings)
  • Weait, M (2012) Criminal Law: Thinking about Criminal Law from a Trial Perspective, p163, in Hunter, C Integrating Socio-Legal Studies into the Law Curriculum (Palgrave Macmillan)