Image: Sitting of a Judicial Committee of the Privy Council

Privy Council Papers

This project is one of the outcomes of the AHRC-funded research network, 'Subjects of Law: Rightful Selves and the Legal Process in Imperial Britain and the British Empire' directed by Dr Nandini Chatterjee and Dr Charlotte Smith (University of Reading).

The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC), was a conciliar court, which grew out of the English monarch's "Privy Council". Initially tasked with dealing with cases from new jurisdictions, most importantly the north American colonies, and manned ad hoc by legally untrained judges, the JCPC grew into the final court of the British Empire, taking appeals from across the world. From the third decade of the nineteenth century, it was gradually reformed to equip it with duly qualified judges, and increasing efforts were made to include judges with experience of overseas jurisdictions, and knowledge of the many non-English and non-Western systems of law that the court had to deal with. 

Each jurisdiction under the JCPC had specific regulations controlling which kinds of cases, under what circumstances, could be appealed. In general, the JCPC was reluctant to hear criminal appeals; the vast majority of the appeals heard were about property, commercial transactions and family. The process of appealing to the JCPC required the production of a printed set of "Case Papers", which included details of the proceedings in every court that the case had passed through before reaching the JCPC, including transcripts, affidavits and other documentary evidence submitted. These "Case Papers" run into hundreds of pages for some cases, and offer a rich glimpse of the lives and interests of a huge range of people from across the world, in the process of their interaction with law in the British Empire. The JCPC’s complete set of such "Case Papers" ranging from 1792-1998 was transferred to the National Archives as part of the process of the JCPC’s re-location to the new building of the UK Supreme Court. These records are currently not open to research, however, an incomplete set 1862-1998 is held by the British Library, which can be used. There are smaller collections elsewhere.

This pilot website provides a searchable catalogue of those Case Papers. It is based on a list prepared by a former employee of the JCPC in his private time, and donated to the British Library. Currently, the online catalogue can be searched for cases according to place and year, as well as party names. Further search functions, including case types, are being added. The purpose of this catalogue is to introduce the researcher to the range and type of material available within this archive, and not to provide direct access to the material itself, for which one has to visit the British Library or other collections. However, the catalogue does present fully digitised "Case Papers" for 6 important cases, and may, in future, contain more of such material. Current work is focused on adding meta-data; such as links to external websites providing the text of the judgments for the cases, and information about judges, lawyers, laws and contexts involved in them.