Law and History

Last December I spent 2 days at the conference of the Australian and New Zealand Law and History Society which was jointly run by the University of Queensland and Griffith University.

It is tempting to compare the Law and History conference with the Australian and New Zealand History of Medicine conference held here last July, which I wrote about here.

Both conferences brought together professional doctors/lawyers with an interest in history, and academic historians.  Both involved a loyal cohort of Society members who attend every conference and know each other well, and a floating body of people, like me, who might go if the conference is held locally, but won’t normally following the caravan from place to place, across the Nullarbor or the Tasman.

There were differences, too.  At the most basic, the Law and History conference was smaller, more tightly knit, and half the price of admission.  In Australia, conferences in Brisbane in winter will always attract a few folk flying in, in search of a warm, tax-deductable holiday.  The History of Medicine conference was even called the Winter Sunshine Conference!  Whereas a conference in hot and muggy Brisbane in mid-December only appeals to the hard core and the conscientious.

There were too many parallel sessions for me to get more than a taste of what people are currently talking about in legal history, except that I suspect that Michel Foucault is finally on the way out.  There were some wonderful stories, of course.  Court cases lay out the brutal reality of murder, divorce, domestic violence, transgressive sex, official and unofficial corruption and everything else in juicy detail.

The question is, how do we move beyond the good yarn to shape these stories into something of wider significance?  One speaker suggested that lawyers use history to bring society into their legal arguments, while historians use law as a key to understanding society.  In any case, the partnership seems to work.

One plenary presentation was about AUSLII.  The Australasian Legal Information Institute is a basic tool for all Australian and New Zealand lawyers, bringing together (as of 6 February 2012) 487 databases from all Australasian jurisdictions.  It gets about 700,000 hits per day, and now has its own free iPhone and iPad App.  Most users are lawyers, but because it is integrated with so many historical databases, it is a valuable tool for historians, too.  (Though sadly, the App only goes back to 1993).  The service is free, because about 300 contributors pay the $A1m it takes to run it every year.

In 1996, Bruce Kercher at Macquarie University began gathering court records for New South Wales, using newspaper reports and other sources typed by volunteers.  16 years later, the project continues, but digitising technology means that much more can be included, and integrated for easy (well, relatively easy!) searching.  Acts and treaties are included as well as court records.

AUSLII is linked to the Commonwealth equivalent, CommonLII, which contains complete court cases (inasmuch as this is possible) from 1220-1873, and in turn, these are linked to WorldLII.  It is a scarily complete collection of legal material, and I don’t pretend to have got my head around it all.  I will also freely admit that I prefer to go into the Macquarie project through its original portal here. But it does suggest how much material is out there, if we only know where to look.

The ANZLHS conference went for 2 days.  Going through my notes now, nearly 2 months later, one pattern certainly emerges: 2 days of conference papers is about all I can take before my brain begins to fry.  As Exhibit A, I offer my jottings from the last afternoon of the conference.  Oh dear!

Australian and New Zealand Law and History Conference

See Bruce Kercher, Recovering and Reporting Australia’s Early Colonial Case Law: The Macquarie Project, Law and History Review, 2000.

A year ago:
Crane Brinton, Egypt and the Anatomy of Revolution, 2 February 2011
Chinese New Year – and the Cantonese Speaking Bushranger, 4 February 2011
The Age of Anecdotage, 6 February 2011

One response to “Law and History

  1. In the history of our criminal law, why is it important to understand common law and the Constitution?

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