Subjects of law: rightful selves and the legal process in imperial Britain and the British empire

Lead Research Organisation: University of Plymouth
Department Name: Sch of Humanities & Performing Arts


This project aims to use a major and hitherto neglected archival cache of legal records to explore the impact of colonial law upon the making of social and political identities, the translation of culturally specific ideas and practices into a 'global' legal language, and the transformation of common law itself - in Britain as much as in those distant countries where British subjects once lived. It begins with the hypothesis that in asserting what they (or others) were entitled to, people enmeshed in any legal process are inevitably compelled to state who they (and others) are, and that in a colonial or imperial context, the compulsions are particularly acute as well as transformative.

This network will examine in three novel ways how entitlement and representation (rights and identities) shaped each other in the context of British imperial rule. First, it will bring together a group of specialists whose combined research interests are genuinely pan-imperial and whose disciplinary expertise spans history, law and literary criticism. In doing so, the network will encourage both multi- and trans-disciplinary research, as well as research that is trans-national in scope - encouraging individual researchers and the collective as a whole to push boundaries, both intellectual and pragmatic. Secondly, it will exploit the research opportunity presented by an emerging archive - the records of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) - an archive unique for its capacity, given its size, for providing an empirical basis for research in these very broad and 'global' themes. Such exploitation and unprecedented usage will be made possible by enhancing an existing prototype website and online catalogue, developed as part of a pilot project "Judging Empire" - conducted by the Principal and Co-investigators. Finally, it will utilise the expertise of the network members in order to benefit from specialist knowledge of supplementary non-UK and/or non-legal records. A significant core of the network will consist of scholars using the JCPC records; but also those concentrating on non-UK legal records, and non-legal sources such as administrative and police records, pamphlets in English and other languages, literary and visual resources - such variety being essential in order to trace the multiple levels at which translations of doctrines, aesthetics, ethics, institutional forms, social networks and political identities occurred within the colonial and imperial legal system(s), and to identify the motivations and compulsions that shaped the assumption of legal subjectivities by very different people, united by the common designation of 'British subjects'.

The network, which includes early career researchers as well as established scholars, has been formed through invitation, as well as by a 'snowballing' process, whereby incorporated network members, have helped to identify outstanding scholars in fields less familiar to the Investigators themselves. We intend to allow the network to recruit members all through its lifetime, thus fulfilling our ambition of setting a new research agenda in law as a crucial site of exchange, transformation and translation in the context of British imperial rule.

We especially intend to use the enhanced project website, with its user blog, as a powerful tool for publicity as well as engagement - with other scholars, as well as the wider public. We will further attempt to engage the general public on issues of governance, cultural diversity and justice by organising a user review event at the outset, by seeking permission to curate a public exhibition on the historic role of the JCPC in the Supreme Court's premises, and also by exploring every opportunity for collaboration with the media, such as was recently offered when our consultation was sought during the production of a documentary film commissioned by the JCPC, intended for visitors.

Planned Impact

In the most immediate terms, this research network and the associated cataloguing and digitisation project will facilitate the usage of a large but hitherto underused collection of records, which the National Archives is in the process of acquiring from the Ministry of Justice, and of which the British Library holds a partial but immediately accessible copy. By creating proper finding aids and making these available online - this project will greatly improve knowledge of and access to these records, and provide an important service to two national institutions.

At the level of the research findings, the proposed research questions touch upon issues that are routinely encountered by lawyers, judges, litigants and legal activists in post-imperial Britain, especially, although not exclusively, in connection with the rights and claims of individuals of minority communities, who have personal or familial connections with Britain's former colonies. The proposed research can facilitate awareness among policy makers and legal professionals about Britain's vast repertoire of experience in governance and adjudication in culturally diverse contexts, and enable the avoidance of historical mistakes. Issues of community belonging, collective claims and the definition of the legitimate role of the state are also of pressing concern to the several post-colonial nations that emerged out of the British empire in Australasia, Africa and the Caribbean. For policy makers and activists of those countries, it would not only be useful to be aware of this historical record, but to also become aware of the alternative trajectories of and historical connections between other ex-colonial countries. Such awareness can be facilitated by aligning our project with other successful and growing legal digitisation projects, such as the BAILLI and COMMONLII.

On the other hand, this is a record of social history that would be valuable for researching, preserving and critiquing the heritage of minority communities in the UK, and also for family historians seeking information about their ancestors who may have lived and worked in various parts of the British empire. This will supplement family history resources already available from the National Archives' website and from the websites of some excellent projects such as that of the Families in British India Society, the 'Moving Here' project and the 'Making Britain' project.

It is also essential, in post-imperial Britain, characterised by cultural pluralism but also threatened by social disintegration and the encroachment of security imperatives on legal freedoms, that the wider public is alerted to the tremendously transformative and sometimes disruptive role played by British judicial institutions in the 'multicultural' world of empire. The proposed exhibition on the JCPC's historic role, held within the premises of the Supreme Court, will contribute to public awareness of the potential and problems of securing justice in a plural and unequal world and the historic experience of British courts attempting to perform that task. We, the investigators of the project, have already provided consultation to the documentary film-makers, Silverfish TV, in the process of creating a short animated movie that will be shown to visitors to the Supreme Court. During the process of that consultation we became aware that the Supreme Court had approximately 45,000 visitors in the last year; this is a significant audience that the public exhibition can engage with, in order to raise awareness regarding the implications of adjudication in socio-culturally diverse societies.

We have also been approached by BBC4 in connection with the Voices from Old Bailey programme - an invitation that arose out of our connection with Professor Tim Hitchcock. We will remain open to, and explore, further such opportunities for collaboration with the media, more in line with our own research interests and those of the network as a whole.


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Chatterjee N (2014) Law and the Spaces of Empire: Introduction to the Special Issue in Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History

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Chatterjee N (2014) Hindu City and Just Empire: Banaras and India in Ali Ibrahim Khan's legal imagination in Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History

Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
AH/J003387/1 01/02/2012 30/09/2013 £36,042
AH/J003387/2 Transfer AH/J003387/1 01/10/2013 30/09/2014 £3,354
Description In this research network we have investigated how law and legal administration across the British Empire involved crucial cultural negotiations. We established that cross-cultural communication and nuanced translation of legal concepts and practices is essential in order to fulfill the quest for justice that inspires people across the world. We also found, however, that cultural negotiations run the risk of irresponsible relativism and worse, the manipulation of alleged, but not in reality universal norms by the powerful members of society. In all this, our key finding is the great value of law and legal principles in affording the marginalised and the under-privileged the space and opportunity to protest against and resist injustice, but also the limitations of law in itself to offer true justice, especially those not in positions of power.
Exploitation Route Our findings are in the realm of humanities and culture, but they are also crucial to just, sensitive and inclusive governance, especially in globalised, multi-cultural societies. We will offer our findings and insights to legal institutions and professionals (as we have done to the UK Supreme Court), and to schools (as we have already done), and continue to invite charities and public bodies to make use of these findings about historical cases and situations, in order to make moral sense of legal and ethical dilemmas of present-day Britain.
Sectors Education,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description 1) The research network has led to an important engagement activity in terms of providing curatorial advice for a free public exhibition hosted by the UK Supreme Court, July-September 2014. The exhibition was titled: A Court at the Crossroads of Empire: Stories from the JCPC. 2) I was asked to play the role of an 'expert witness' in a dramatic production directed by Zuleikha Chaudhuri at the Dhaka Art Summit, 4 February 2018, in connection with a famous Privy Council case. Here the aim of the director was to produce participative theatre in which experts from various fields query the capacity of common law derived legal systems to offer justice to marginal members of society.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Cultural

Title PCPO 
Description This is the first online catalogue of the records of the historic court, the Judicial Commitee of the Privy Council, which was once the final court of the British Empire. This enables researchers, family historians and others to assess the contents of this very large archive, currently housed in the National Archives and the British Library. While the website had been already developed under a previous internal grant, it was refined under the present grant. It is currently linked to the website of the UK Supreme Court and the JCPC. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact I have qualitative information based on user emails that researchers and family historians are finding the website of use. 
Description British Library -PC 
Organisation The British Library
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution The project used information and holdings available at the British Library in order to create the resource which widened awareness of an important and large collection of the British Library, which has remained underused.
Collaborator Contribution The British Library contributed to the creation and development of the website and resource, through the contribution of staff time (especially that of Jonathan Sims) for guiding the project in its aims.
Impact - this is a catalogue of the case files of the erstwhile highest court of appeal of the British Empire. A copy of the papers is held in the British Library.
Start Year 2012
Description CSSSC conference 2012 
Organisation Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (CSSSC)
Country India 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution The project transferred INR 252,200 to CSSSC in order to partly cover the costs of a 3-day international workshop co-organised by the project and CSSSC, in Calcutta, December 2012.
Collaborator Contribution CSSSC, Calcutta, spent resources valued at Rs. 146,800 to cover costs of venue, necessary conference equipment, support staff, conference lunches and refreshments and photocopying and printing, plus institutional overheads.
Impact Special Issue of Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, vol. 15, no. 1, 2014, on "Law and the Spaces of Empire"
Start Year 2012
Description Supreme Court 
Organisation UK Supreme Court
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution The project and its members contributed by providing specialist curatorial advice and research for creating a free public exhibition about the history of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC), which was held in the premises of the Supreme Court July-September 2014.
Collaborator Contribution The UKSC contributed by providing the venue and staff time.
Impact The holding of a free public exhibition at the UK Supreme Court, July- September 2014. Law and history are the two major disciplines involved, with contributions from English.
Start Year 2012
Description Free public exhibition 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact On the invitation of the UK Supreme Court, I led a panel of experts to curate a free public exhibition on the history of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, the final court of appeal for the erstwhile British Empire. Most of these experts were members of the AHRC-funded research network: Subjects of law. The exhibition was housed in the UK Supreme Court building for 3 months, July-September, 2014. Approximately 26,000 visitors saw the exhibition, which is significantly more than the 19,600 people who had visited the UK Supreme Court during the same period in the previous year. In its exit survey, the UK Supreme Court asked visitors to rate the exhibition overall with 1 indicating it needs some improvements and 5 being excellent. Of the 361 visitors who submitted a response, 84% gave a favourable response of either 4 or 5 out of 5. Some of the qualitative feedback collected evaluated the exhibition's content as "accessible but not patronising", pointed to "simplicity of language without dumbing down" and said that content was "simply laid out for a novice".

There were also 5 full days of intensive mooting, based on material derived from the exhibition, organised for high school students. The schools selected were from Reading and the South-West - which expanded the UK Supreme Court's engagement activities geographically.

Finally, there were two public lectures related to the themes of the exhibition, that marked the opening and closing of the exhibition. Each (free but ticketed) event was fully sold out, and there was very lively discussion afterwards, including with the judges of the UK Supreme Court, and legal professionals such as the President of the Commonwealth Magistrates' Association.

The principal impact of this activity was supplying expert advice and tailored content to an apex public institution, whose own strategic priorities include making their work and history known to the British and international public. The UK Supreme Court sought our expert advice on this subject, and the research network allowed me to to draw on a very large-ranging expertise in order to provide them with such consultation.

The UK Supreme itself noted in a letter to me and my co-investigator,
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2014