In this Guide
Lisa Davies, August 2014
This guide draws from the work of IALS Director, Jules Winterton: J R Winterton, 'Commonwealth' in Elizabeth Moys (ed) Manual of Law Librarianship: The Use and Organization of Legal Literature (2nd edn, Gower 1987).
About the author
This guide was updated by Lisa Davies, Access Librarian at the IALS Library.
Click here for Lisa's full profile and contact details.
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The Commonwealth is a voluntary association of 53 independent states. Many members of the Commonwealth, though not all, are former British territories and were part of Britain's colonial Empire. The Commonwealth covers 2.2 billion people, which is thirty per cent of the world's population. A map of members is available on the Commonwealth website at http://thecommonwealth.org/member-countries and a table of members listed by region is provided below:
Commonwealth Members by region
Caribbean and Americas
United Republic of Tanzania
Antigua and Barbuda
St Kitts and Nevis
St Vincent and The Grenadines
Trinidad and Tobago
Papua New Guinea
Whilst all members of the Commonwealth recognize Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II as Head of the Commonwealth, she is Head of State in only a small number (e.g. UK, Canada, Australia). In fact Commonwealth members have a wide range of constitutions; republics (e.g. Nigeria, South Africa, Pakistan), indigenous monarchies (e.g. Lesotho, Malaysia, Tonga), a sultanate (Brunei), and an elected Paramount Chieftaincy (Western Samoa).
The Commonwealth, as an organisation, does not create any law in its own right, but because of the shared colonial history of the majority of members, similarities exist in their legal systems and legal literature. That said, each member country has its own unique history, constitution and legal system and for this reason it is important not to over emphasize the similarities but rather to consider the legal system of each country a distinct and separate entity.
It is worth noting that the terms British Commonwealth and Commonwealth of Nations are no longer widely used.
Former UK dependencies which are not Commonwealth members
Though not dealt with specifically in this research guide, researchers may find it useful to know about countries which are not Commonwealth members but which had, or continue to have, a relationship with the United Kingdom.
British Overseas Territories (formerly known as British Dependent Territories and before that Crown Colonies) and the overseas or dependent territories of other members of the Commonwealth are not members of the Commonwealth themselves but can be said to be "part of the Commonwealth" or "within the Commonwealth". The fourteen British Overseas Territories are listed below. More information about the history, constitution and governance of the British Overseas Territories can be found in Halsbury's Laws of England, volume 13 on Commonwealth [at shelf GA2.H.10 or via Lexis Library].
- British Antarctic Territory
- British Indian Ocean Territory
- The British Virgin Islands
- The Cayman Islands
- The Falkland Islands
- The Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie & Oeno Islands
- Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha (including Gough Island Dependency)
- South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands
- Sovereign Base Areas, Akrotiri and Dhekelia (on Cyprus)
The Crown Dependencies, namely The Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, have a unique constitutional status in that they are neither part of the United Kingdom, nor overseas territories. Though they are not full members of the Commonwealth they are considered to be "part of the Commonwealth" or "within the Commonwealth".
A brief history of each of the following countries, which were formerly dependent on the UK but are now independent and outside of the Commonwealth, is provided in Halsbury's Laws of England:
- The Gambia
- Republic of Ireland
- Persian Gulf States
The Commonwealth collections in IALS Library
History of Commonwealth collections
The Library at IALS has a rich collection of law resources from Commonwealth countries. The first prospectus of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, published in 1948, the year after it was founded, set the ground work for this by establishing the Institute as "the focal point of legal research for the United Kingdom and the countries of the British Commonwealth”, set up on the basis that “better provision should be made […] for making available to scholars not only in this country but throughout the British Commonwealth and abroad the unrivalled materials which exist in London for legal research.” In 1947 the Nuffield Foundation gave a grant of £10,000 to enable the Institute to “build up a library of Dominion and Empire laws. […] it is hoped in time to build up a comprehensive library of the Common Law of the British Commonwealth […]”.
For more information please see the First Prospectus of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (1948).
Since the Institute's establishment many generous donations have supplemented the Library's Commonwealth collections:
- For many years Commonwealth law was received free by arrangement with the Colonial Office.
- Much material was donated by House of Commons Library and the Canada Law Library of the Canadian government.
- The British Library funded Commonwealth law reports in the 1980s.
- The 1990s saw a transfer of a substantial collection of Commonwealth legislation from the Library of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to IALS. This is held under a trust deed agreed between the FCO and UoL.
Classification of Commonwealth materials
The classmark GB1 refers to the Commonwealth in general and is also assigned to items that cover more than one Dominion, colony, jurisdiction, region, etc. Materials relating to only one Commonwealth country will be located within the classmark of that individual country. Refer to the World Country Index if you are unsure of the code for a specific country. Materials relating to Common Law subjects are filed together with the SJ classmark, regardless of jurisdiction. Remember that it is not possible to find all materials relating to the Commonwealth just by browsing the shelves. Many useful items, particularly older titles, are kept in the reserve collection, which is closed access. To avoid missing relevant material, make sure you search the Library Catalogue.
If you wish to carry out a subject search on the catalogue, you might find the following subjects useful:
Brief history of the Commonwealth
For a timeline of the history of the Commonwealth please refer to that on the Commonwealth website. Some key events that saw the former British Empire dissolve and the Commonwealth emerge are reproduced below:
Late 19th / early 20th century: Some of the larger colonies in the British Empire became self-governing.
1884: Lord Rosebery called the British Empire a “Commonwealth of Nations” during a visit to Australia.
1907: At the Colonial Conference in London “Dominions” were defined as “those parts of the royal possessions, other than the United Kingdom, which have attained the full measure of responsible government and have ceased to be dependencies”.
1926: The Balfour Declaration stated that Britain and the Dominions were "autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations".
1931: The Statute of Westminster gave legal recognition to the independence of the Dominions. Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa joined the UK as members of the then "British Commonwealth of Nations".
Early 1940s: Many countries sought independence from the Crown.
1947: India became independent and declared it wanted to become a republic whilst remaining in the Commonwealth.
1949: The London Declaration allowed republics to retain Commonwealth membership, acknowledging George VI as Head of the Commonwealth. For the first time, membership of the “Commonwealth of Nations” was no longer based on allegiance to the Crown.
1960s & 1970s: Many newly independent states joined the Commonwealth.
1965: The Commonwealth Secretariat and Commonwealth Foundation were established.
1971: At the first Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Singapore, the Declaration of Commonwealth Principles (known as the Singapore Declaration) outlined the Commonwealth members' statement of core beliefs. These beliefs "embrace equal rights for all regardless of race, colour, creed or political belief, the association’s commitment to democratic self-determination and non-racialism, world peace and an end to gross inequity, and its commitment to practice international co-operation in pursuit of these goals".
2013: The Commonwealth Charter was signed, consolidating previous individual Declarations and setting out the Association's principles, values and aspirations.
Commonwealth organisations and activities
Head of the Commonwealth
The Head of the Commonwealth is a symbolic role. The current Head is Queen Elizabeth II. The choice of successive Heads will be made collectively by Commonwealth leaders and does not have to be the reigning monarch in the United Kingdom.
The Commonwealth Secretariat was established in 1965 and is based at Marlborough House. The Secretariat provides administration for the association. It implements the decisions of the Commonwealth leaders, organises meetings and forums, arranges for the exchange of advice and provision of experts, and is responsible for the publishing of official commonwealth documents and reports. The head of the Secretariat is the Secretary General, who is supported by Deputy Secretary Generals. More information is available on the Commonwealth website (the Secretariat does not have a separate website).
The Commonwealth Foundation was also established in 1965 and is based at Marlborough House in London. It is a development organisation that encourages non-governmental co-operation and activities and supports professional networks and organisations like the Commonwealth Association of Architects, Commonwealth Medical Association and the Commonwealth Lawyers Association. More information is available on its website.
Commonwealth of Learning
As stated on its website, the Commonwealth of Learning is an intergovernmental organisation established "to encourage the development and sharing of open learning and education knowledge, resources and technology".
Commonwealth organisations are involved in diverse activities.The Report of the Commonwealth Secretary-General 2011-2013 divides Commonwealth activities into the following categories:
- Economic Development
- Environmentally Sustainable Development
- Governance and Public Sector Development
- Human and Social Development
- Human Rights
- Peace, Democracy and Concensus Building
- Rule of Law
- Strategic Planning, Human Resources and Organisational Management
Generally speaking, Commonwealth organisations work with member countries to develop these areas by providing advice, support and assistance, and by setting up ad-hoc and ongoing projects, professional networks and action groups to help achieve its aims.
Official Commonwealth publications
Publications issued by the Commonwealth of use to those researching the legal or constitutional systems of Commonwealth countries can be split into the following categories.
Communiqués of meetings and conferences
Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGM), held every two years, have been the Commonwealth's main discussion forum since 1971. At the meetings declarations, statements and memorandum are issued that declare the Commonwealth's function and core beliefs. Meetings of heads of government date back to the first Colonial Conference of 1887. Colonial Conferences were established on a regular basis in 1897, and re-styled as Imperial Conferences from 1911 to 1937. After 1937 the Conferences were replaced by Prime Ministers’ meetings, which were replaced by Heads of Government Meetings in 1971. Please refer to the section on Conference proceedings below for information on where to find these conference proceedings, meeting communiqués as well as any declarations or statements issued.
The minutes and memoranda from meetings of Commonwealth Law Ministers are held at IALS Library and are catalogued individually. Run a keyword search on the Library Catalogue for commonwealth law ministers to see a full list of holdings.
The Commonwealth Charter
For many years the Commonwealth's organisation and function was defined in a number of Declarations issued at CHOGMs. In 2013 the Commonwealth Charter was signed by the Queen. The Charter consolidates previous individual Declarations, and sets out the association's principles and aims in a single document.
The Yearbook is the Commonwealth's flagship publication. It provides a guide to the organisations and activities of the Commonwealth, including CHOGMs and other summits, profiles of Commonwealth members and their territories. It also includes a directory of Commonwealth organisations and statistics. The Yearbook is published on behalf of the Secretariat by Nexus Strategic Partnerships. This publication is not held at IALS Library but it is available in its current and previous guises (British Commonwealth Yearbook, Empire and Commonwealth Yearbook, etc.) in the Institute of Commonwealth Studies Library.
The Secretariat often publishes reports on the outcomes of its activities. If the Commonwealth has been engaged in the assessment of a developmental issue in a Commonwealth country, it will also report and publish these findings. IALS Library has many of these reports when they touch on matters of law, legislation, governance and the judiciary. For example:
Commonwealth Observer Group. Malawi parliamentary and presidential elections: 19 May 2009: report of the Commonwealth Observer Group. Commonwealth Secretariat 2009. FOL GC4.C.3 COM
Sen, P (ed). Human rights in the Commonwealth: a status report. Commonwealth Secretariat 2008. GB1.C.5 SEN
Sen, P (ed). Child rights in the Commonwealth: 20 years of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Commonwealth Secretariat 2009.GB1.C.5 SEN
Thompson-Barrow, C. Bringing justice home: the road to final appellate and regional court establishment. London: Commonwealth Secretariat, 2008. GB1.C.4 THO
Reports of the Commonwealth Secretary-General
At each CHOGM meeting the Secretary-General provides a report summarizing Commonwealth activities from the previous two years, since the last CHOGM. These reports are available on the Commonwealth website from 2001 onwards. Previously the Secretary-General produced an annual report to heads of government. IALS Library has these reports from 1977 to 1983/85. Click here for details. The Institute of Commonwealth Studies Library has the reports from 1965/66 to 2005. Click here for details.
Guidance and manuals
The Secretariat often publishes guidance or manuals to advise Commonwealth members on best practice in certain areas, such as legislative drafting or dispute resolution. The Library has many of these publications when they touch on matters of law, legislation, governance and the judiciary. Search the Library Catalogue to check the full holdings. Here are some examples:
Chinkin, C. M. Gender mainstreaming in legal and constitutional affairs: a reference manual for governments and other stakeholders. Commonwealth Secretariat, 2001. FOL GB1.C.5 CHI
Commonwealth Secretariat. Guidelines for the treatment of victims of crime: best practice. Commonwealth Secretariat, 2003. GB1.D.4 COM
Connerty, A. A manual of international dispute resolution. Commonwealth Secretariat, 2006. SG20 COM
Commonwealth Law Bulletin [at shelf GB1.J.12 and via the electronic subscription database HeinOnline] is produced quarterly by the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Division of the Commonwealth Secretariat. It includes articles on the law and legal affairs of individual Commonwealth countries, as well as international and Commonwealth-wide issues. It also includes recommendations for law reform in Commonwealth countries, reports of cases on matters of administrative, commercial, constitutional, criminal and human rights law from around the Commonwealth, and synopses of new legislation. It is published by Taylor & Francis on behalf of the Secretariat.
Commonwealth Human Rights Law Digest [at shelf SG85.G.4] provides summaries of recent human rights decisions from national courts in Commonwealth countries. It includes decisions from smaller jurisdictions whose decisions would otherwise be unreported or difficult to access.
The following organisations are not official organs of the Commonwealth, but are important sources of information about the governance of the association or the law of Commonwealth members.
Commonwealth Legal Education Association
The Commonwealth Legal Education Association promotes high standards of legal education in the Commonwealth. It publishes a newsletter Commonwealth Legal Education twice a year, which is freely available online. Older issues are available in the library at shelf FOL GB1.J.15. The Association also runs a bienniel legal education conference.
Commonwealth Lawyers Association
The Commonwealth Lawyers Association is a professional membership organisation that aims to promote the rule of law by improving professional standards, education and networking. The Association organises the Commonwealth Law Conference and publishes the journal The Commonwealth Lawyer. The Commonwealth Lawyer contains academic articles on a whole manner of legal topics from senior practitioners and members of the judiciary across the Commonwealth. It is located in the library at shelf FOL GB1.J.16.
Institute of Commonwealth Studies
The Institute of Commonwealth Studies is a postgraduate research institution and, like the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, is a member of the University of London's School of Advanced Study. The library is a major national resource for research in the Commonwealth as a whole and its member states, in the fields of history, politics and international relations, agriculture, education, the environment, and social questions. The Institute publishes the Journal of Human Rights in the Commonwealth, an Open Access journal that is freely available online on the SAS Open Journals platform.
Reception of English law in British colonies
Manner of acquisition and introduction of English law
Colonies were either acquired by settlement or by conquest or cession. If a colony did not have a "civilized" government that was recognised in international law, the manner of acquisition was by settlement. If there was already an organised, recognisable government in place, acquisition was by conquest or cession. Cession treaties may be found in major treaty collections such as British and Foreign State Papers.
In settled colonies, English law (statute and common law) was "received" in the form in force on a certain day, usually the date of settlement. Only as much of the law as was applicable to the situation of the colony was introduced. In ceded or conquered colonies, if established systems of law were already in place they were normally retained unless inconsistent with English statute law or unconscionable. English law was introduced to deal with matters not already dealt with in local law, for example shipping and trade. After the reception of English law, the common and statute law of the colony could be modified by either local or Imperial legislation.
The UK government retained the right to legislate in certain matters by virtue of royal prerogative or by authority of statute. The main types of legal instrument issued were Statutes, Letters Patent and Orders in Council.
Statutes made in Westminster after the date of reception were not applicable to colonies, unless expressly stated or generally applicable to all colonies. They could be extended to a colony by Order in Council (see below). The British Parliament retained the right to legislate directly for the colonies but in practice did so infrequently, and legislated only on constitutional issues. Once a colony had functioning institutions of governance and a legislature, it created its own legislation. Most colonies built up their own body of law from an early stage.
Some Statutes that clarified the jurisdiction of the UK include:
- British Settlement Acts 1887 and 1945
- Foreign Jurisdiction Acts 1890 and 1913
- Colonial Laws Validity Act 1875
- Statute of Westminster Act 1931
For guidance on finding UK Statutes, please refer to our United Kingdom research guide.
Letters Patent and Orders in Council
Letters Patent and Orders in Council were issued as statutory instruments or prerogative instruments. They were used to establish institutions of government in a colony and to appoint a Governor. Letters Patent were often issued to grant a right, office or title, or to ratify a treaty. Orders in Council were often used to extend a UK statute to a colony or dependency.
Selected Letters Patent and Orders in Council are published in the bound Statutory Instruments series within the numbered sequence (and in its predecessor Statutory Rules and Orders) if they were made as statutory instruments. If made as prerogative instruments they sometimes appear in the appendix at the back of the volume as they are unnumbered. In IALS Library Statutory Instruments are shelved at FOL GA2.E.60.
Prerogative instruments are not included on legislation.gov.uk and can be difficult to get hold of. They are available in the patent rolls at National Archive which runs from 1201 to the present day. Prerogative instruments are also sometimes published in the London Gazette.
A good source of the Letters Patent and Orders in Council that established colonies and their institutions of governance is World Constitutions Illustrated, which is available through the electronic subscription database HeinOnline.
Though each colony had its own unique system of governance, four distinct categories are often referred to:
Colonies with no representative institutions - In these colonies, sometimes called Crown colonies, the Crown controlled legislation. Administration was by officers controlled by the Imperial government.
Colonies with representative institutions - These colonies had a legislative body (normally called the Legislative Assembly) that was at least 50% elected by local inhabitants. However the Governor, and members of the second chamber (normally the Legislative Council) were nominated by the Imperial government. The Crown retained a veto over legislation.
Colonies with representative institutions and responsible governance - As above, these colonies had a legislative body at least 50% elected by local inhabitants. Ministers were responsible to the legislature rather than the Crown. The only official appointed by the Imperial government was the Governor. The Crown retained a veto over legislation.
Self-governing Dominions - The Imperial government did not interfere with internal local matters in the Dominions. They had full responsible governance and were no longer "dependencies".
Constitutional and legal history of Commonwealth countries
Some good starting points when researching a Commonwealth country's constitution and legal history are:
Halsbury’s Laws of England (5th edn, 2007) vol 13 [at shelf GA2.H.10 or via Lexis Library] provides details on each Commonwealth member including details of date and manner of acquisition, as well as date and manner of independence, with references to relevant Statutes and other legal instruments.
Dale W, The Modern Commonwealth (Butterworths 1983) provides summaries of the legal and constitutional history of Commonwealth countries
Dupont J, The Common Law Abroad (Fred B. Rothman Publications 2001) [at shelf BG10 DUP] provides detailed descriptions of countries that were once British dependencies. Each entry gives details of colonial history, constitutional development, reception of law, administration of justice, and independence. The work's primary function is a bibliography of constitutional and legal titles generated in or for the British dependencies until independence.
Roberts-Wray K, Commonwealth and Colonial Law (Stevens 1966) provides summaries of the legal and constitutional history of Commonwealth countries
As well as works that aim to provide background to all Commonwealth countries, it is also worth checking for legal histories of individual countries. IALS Library has many of such legal histories in its collections. To see what is available run a Keyword search on the IALS Library Catalogue. Alternatively try a subject search for Law Country/Region History, e.g.
Law Australia History
Law Jamaica History
Law India History
Here is a small selection of legal histories of Commonwealth countries in the IALS Library to illustrate the type of material available:
Codlin R, Historical foundations of Jamaican law (Canoe Press 2003)
Engle Merry S and Brenneis D (eds), Law & empire in the Pacific: Fiji and Hawaii (James Curry 2004)
Ghai Y P, Public law and political change in Kenya: a study of the legal framework of government from colonial times to the present (Oxford University Press 1970)
Hooker M B, A concise legal history of South-East Asia (Clarendon Press 1978)
Jain M P, Outlines of Indian legal history (N.M. Tripathi 1990)
Karsten P, Between law and custom: high and low legal cultures in the lands of the British diaspora- the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, 1600-1900 (Cambridge University Press 2002)
Liverpool N J O, The history and development of the St. Lucia civil code (Institute of Social and Economic Research (Eastern Caribbean) University of the West Indies 1977)
McHugh P G, Aboriginal societies and the common law: a history of sovereignty, status, and self-determination (Oxford University Press 2004)
Morris H F, Indirect rule and the search for justice: essays in East African legal history (Clarendon Press 1972)
Risk, R C B, A history of Canadian legal thought: collected essays (University of Toronto Press 2006)
Independence documents and constitutions
Documents relating to independence of the Dominions
The Dominions went through a gradual constitutional shift from self-governance to full independence, recognized in law by the Statute of Westminster 1931. Official documents and reports relating to the independence process include:
The Report on the affairs of British North America, from the Earl of Durham, Her Majesty's high commissioner (HC 1938, 3), known as the Durham Report, reported on the uprisings in Upper and Lower Canada which led to Acts establishing responsible self-government for the Dominions. It is available online through the HCPP database.
The Balfour Declaration, published in the Summary of Proceedings of the Imperial Conference,1926 (Cmd 2768, 1926) stated that the United Kingdom and its Dominions were equal in status in domestic and external affairs, and "in no way subordinate one to another". The Proceedings are available online through the HCPP database and in print in the Library.
Keith A B (ed), Speeches and Documents on the British Dominions, 1918-31: from self-government to national sovereignty (OUP 1938).
Mansergh N (ed), Documents and Speeches on British Commonwealth Affairs, 1931-52 (OUP 1953).
Documents relating to independence of other territories
With the exception of the Dominions, independence from the United Kingdom was normally via an Independence Act passed in the UK parliament. The Act would state the appointed day when the UK government no longer had responsibility for the governance of the territory and no Act of the UK parliament passed on or after the appointed day would apply to the territory in question. The Constitution of the newly independent country was often scheduled to an associated Order in Council. Unless stated otherwise, the country seeking independence would remain within the jurisdiction of the Privy Council and the UK monarch would remain sovereign. The attainment of republicanism was by way of a separate Republic Act.
The names of the independence documents for all Commonwealth members is given in Halsbury's Laws of England, Volume 13 on the Commonwealth [at shelf GA2.H.10 or via Lexis Library]. Once you have the name of the Act, you will be available to find it in the various sources of UK legislation mentioned in the United Kingdom Research Guide.
Most countries have a written constitution and they are normally available on the government website of the country in question. Other sources for locating constitutions include:
- World Constitutions Illustrated: an electronic source that provides the full text of the current constitution or constitutional legislation for every country in the world, in the original language and in English. It is available via HeinOnline. It also includes scholarly commentary and historical versions constitutions in full for many countries.
- Blaustein A P and Franze G H (eds), Constitutions of the countries of the world: a series of updated texts, constitutional chronologies and annotated bibliographies (Oceana Publications, 1971-) . [NB: This is held in the reserve collection and is no longer updated].
- Constitutions are often published within the legislation of a particular country.
- Consititutions were published scheduled to a UK Order in Council at the time of independence.
- Sometimes a country might produce and publish an updated version. These consolidations will be catalogued on the Library Catalogue individually.
- Failing that, check a legal research guide like the IALS Research Guides, Foreign Law Guide or GlobaLex for an alternative source.
Documents relating to the constitutional conferences that took place when the new constitution was being drafted can also be useful for constitutional law researchers. See the section below on Conference proceedings for details of how to locate them.
Legal research guides
Sources of law in Commonwealth countries are often based on English sources and similarities do exist. In order to familiarize yourself with the main sources of legal literature from a particular country it is a good idea to refer to a legal research guide in the first instance.
IALS Library has written Research Guides for 22 countries, many of which are Commonwealth members (Australia, Canada, Ghana, India, New Zealand, Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda, United Kingdom) or former British territories (Hong Kong, Ireland, United States). These guides provide details of the key sources of law in the jurisdiction in question, in print and online. Guides are also available to help you search the Library Catalogue for legislation, law reports and books relating to individual countries. There is also a Databases Guide to help you find out which databases are available for different jurisdictions.
Foreign Law Guide is a subscription database from BRILL which is available in the Electronic Law Library. It is an excellent source of information for the law resources and legal systems of jurisdictions of the world. For each country it provides information on the legal history, legislative and judicial systems, and comprehensive bibliographic information on legislation (Official Gazette, Session Laws and Codes) and law reports. It also provides references to laws on particular subjects.
GlobaLex is a free online service provided by the Hauser Global Law School Program at NYU School of Law. It consists of a series of legal research guides for foreign and international jurisdictions. Each guide provides a historical background to the legal system as well as information on sources of law.
The IALS Library has many legal research guides in print for Commonwealth countries. To see what is available run a keyword search on the IALS Library Catalogue. Alternatively try a Subject search for Legal Research Country, e.g.
Legal Research Australia
Legal Research Canada
Legal Research Great Britain
Here is a small selection of legal research guides for Commonwealth countries in the IALS Library to illustrate the type of material available:
Greville M, Legal research and writing in New Zealand (LexisNexis 2007)
Knowles J, Effective legal research (Sweet & Maxwell 2012)
McCormack N, The practical guide to Canadian legal research (Carswell c2010)
Mitchell A D, Legal research manual (LBC Information Services 2000)
Legislation in Commonwealth countries
Terms for legislation vary from country to country. Instruments of primary legislation are normally called Acts, Statutes, Laws or Ordinances (in dependencies). Sources of secondary legislation are Statutory Instruments, Regulations or Orders. Many Commonwealth countries have a federal system of governance, and these countries will create legislation at a national and provincial level.
All countries publish legislation in print in some form (either as individual session laws or in an official gazette) and many countries reprint legislation in bound annual volumes with indexes and tables, though there is often a delay of several years. Sometimes a commercial publisher publishes legislation on behalf of a government and this will be the only source of legislation. Some countries periodically publish bound revisions or consolidations in force on a particular date or alternatively publish legislation series that are constantly updated by reprinted volumes, supplements and loose-leaf updaters. These works are normally published by commercial publishers. See the online Legislation guide for guidance on finding legislation in the library.
Free online sources
Recently enacted legislation is often freely available online, either on a government website or through the relevant Legal Information Institute (see WorldLII for a full list). Free online versions normally only include legislation as enacted but increasingly effort is being made to incorporate amendments, especially in larger jurisdictions. For help with finding authoritative sources of free online legislation or the official gazette for a Commonwealth country, check the sources mentioned in the Legal Research Guides section above, or search Eagle-i, a database of high quality legal websites. For locating official gazettes, the FLARE Group's searchable online database of Official Government Gazettes (FOGG) is particularly useful.
CommonLII, the Commonwealth Legal Information Institute, aims to provide a single online location where it is possible to search legal information from all Commonwealth countries for free. It includes more than 400 databases from over 25 Commonwealth countries and links to legal websites in all Commonwealth countries, many of which provide access to legislation.
Commercial online sources
In larger jurisdictions commercial legal publishers often provide fully up-to-date legislation through a subscription based database. As well as providing the most up-to-date versions of legislation available, these commercial sources of legislation often also include value-added content, such as links to historical versions, related journal articles and cases, legislation citators, annotations, full-text search functionality and so on. To find out which commercial databases are available via IALS Library for different Commonwealth countries, check the relevant Jurisdiction guide, the Databases guide, or look directly at the list of databases in the Electronic Law Library.
The Commonwealth, as an organisation, does not produce any legislation of its own. For details of legislation made by the British government applicable to its colonies during time of the British Empire, please refer to the section on Imperial governance above.
Law reports and judgments in Commonwealth countries
The reporting of cases from internal courts of Commonwealth members varies considerably from country to country. Some countries have an official series of law reports, some have commercial series, some have an official series that is published by a commercial publisher, and some have very little law reporting at all. In IALS Library the catalogue record is for the series of law reports. See the guide on finding Cases for more details.
Free online sources
Judgments handed down in higher courts are often made available on the court's website or through the relevant Legal Information Institute (see WorldLII for a full list). For help with finding authoritative sources of free online judgments for Commonwealth countries, check the sources mentioned in the Legal Research Guides section above, or search Eagle-i, a database of high quality legal websites.
CommonLII, the Commonwealth Legal Information Institute, aims to provide a single online location where it is possible to search legal information from all Commonwealth countries for free. It includes more than 400 databases from over 25 Commonwealth countries and links to legal websites in all Commonwealth counries, many of which provide access to legislation.
Commercial onlines sources
As is the case with legislation, in larger jurisdictions commercial legal publishers often provide access to official judgments and commercial law reports through a subscription based database. These commercial databases often include value-added content, such as the ability to check the judicial history of a case, the subsequent treatment of a case, links to relevant journal articles and legislation, full-text search functionality and so on. To find out which commercial databases are available for different Commonwealth countries, check the relevant Jurisdiction guide, the Databases guide, or look directly at the list of databases in the Electronic Law Library.
Commonwealth-wide law reports, case digests and citators
The following sources are either Commonwealth-wide in scope or cover several Commonwealth countries.
Law Reports of the Commonwealth, published by LexisNexis, reports key cases of international significance from all Commonwealth countries. It includes judgments not reported elsewhere. Prior to 1993 the volumes were divided into Commercial Law, Constitutional Law and Criminal Law. More recent volumes have wider coverage and include reports on other legal topics such as arbitration, conflict of laws, environment, human rights, immigration, property and tort. At the end of each year an annual Editorial Review including tables and index is published. This Review provides analysis of legal trends in the Commonwealth. The index allows you to identify cases by name, jurisdiction or subject. It also allows you to search for cases that refer to other cases, or that refer to particular pieces of legislation or constitutions. Cumulative indexes are published periodically. The most recent cumulative index covers 1980-2012. This series is shelved at GB1.G.1 (1980 onwards) and is also available electronically via Lexis Library.
Commonwealth Lawyer is the journal of the Commonwealth Lawyers' Association, published three times per year. Each issue contains a Case Notes section that summarizes key cases from around the Commonwealth. This journal is located at shelf FOL GB1.J.16. Older issues are freely available on Commonwealth Lawyers' Association website.
Commonwealth Law Bulletin is a quarterly journal produced by the Commonwealth Secretariat and published by Taylor & Francis. Each issue contains a section called Judicial Decisions which reports selected Commonwealth cases on a variety of topics. A cumulative index is published every few years, which allows you to look up cases by country or by case name. The latest cumulative index available is 2002-2004. The journal is located at shelf GB1.J.12 and can be accessed electroncially via HeinOnline.
Commonwealth Human Rights Law Digest is published twice a year by Interights, the International Centre for the Legal Protection of Human Rights. It contains summaries of human rights cases from domestic courts across the Commonwealth. In each issue it is possible to look up cases by name, jurisdiction and subject. All cases included in the Digest are included in the freely available online Commonwealth Human Rights Law Database. The printed version is available in the library on shelf SG85.G.4.
The Digest (previously the English and Empire Digest) includes summaries of British, Commonwealth and European cases. It can be used to find cases on a particular subject, to find a digest of a particular case if you know the party names or citation, or to see where a case has been reported. It is particularly useful for larger Commonwealth countries. The current edition can be found in the library at shelf GA2.H.3. IALS Library also has the original edition 1919-1930 and the blue-band edition1950-1971 in the reserve collection.
LawCite is a colloborative project between several Legal Information Institutes. It is a freely available online citator that covers 18,000 law report and journal series from around the world. The current emphasis is on common law jurisdictions but the coverage is gradually being extended to civil law jurisdictions as well. The list of titles included can be viewed on the Lawcite website. Lawcite can be used help you to locate and find a copy of a judgment, to see how a decision has been subsequently dealt with and to find other related materials such as journal articles. LawCite is automatically updated when the databases of the contributing Legal Information Institutes are updated. Therefore unlike many commercial services, no editorial decision is made as to what is included and what is omitted.
Justcite is a commercial case citator published by Justis which covers several common law countries, namely Australia, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Canada, Ireland, Jamaica, Singapore, South Africa, and the USA. The citator can be used to find cases where you know the party name or citation, and also to search for cases on a particular subject. Justcite provides details of where the case has been reported, the case history, subsequent treatment of the case, and links to relevant articles. In IALS Library Justcite can be access through the Justis database in the Electronic Law Library.
Oxford Reports on International Law (ORIL) is an online service produced by Oxford University Press. It contains a module called International Law in Domestic Courts (ILDC), which is a database of domestic cases concerning international law, from more than seventy jurisdictions, with commentary. It can be accessed through the Electronic Law Library.
Regional Commonwealth law reports
Some series of law reports cover a particular region within the Commonwealth. For example:
African human rights law reports (2004-) at GU1.G.2. Electronic access on the Centre for Human Rights website
The Caribbean commercial law reports (1988-90) at GN1.G.3
Eastern Caribbean law reports (1996-) at GN1.G.5
OECS law reports (1991-95) at GN1.G.4
Selected judgments of the West Africa Court of Appeal (1930-1960) at GH1.G.1. Electronic access via LLMC Digital
The West Indian Reports (1958-) at GN1.G.2. Electronic access via Lexis Library
Privy Council decisions
The final court of appeal in civil or criminal matters in British colonies during the time of British Empire was the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. Many cases that were granted appeal to the Privy Council involved constitutional matters. Today the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council continues to the final court of appeal for several Commonwealth countries as well as Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories. Refer to the list on the JCPC website for full details.
Finding decisions of the Privy Council
Privy Council Papers Online is a catalogue of 10,000 cases decided between 1792-1998. The full text of six decisions is provided. Links to the full-text judgments on BAILII is provided for more recent cases.
The ICLR Law Reports series report Privy Council decisions in the following sub-series:
- Privy Council – L.R.P.C. (1865-1875)
- Appeal Cases – App. Cas. (1875-1890)
- Appeal Cases – A.C. (1891-present)
The ICLR Law Reports are available through online subscription databases including Lexis Library and Westlaw UK, and are available in print in the Library at shelf GA2.G.2.
The main source for pre-1865 cases is the English Reports 1220 to 1873. They are available in IALS Library at shelf GA2.G.1, or can be accessed online via CommonLII. They are also available on a number of commercial databases including HeinOnline, which provides particularly good search and browse options.
Most countries will also include Privy Council appeal cases in their own major series of law reports.
In addition, researchers may find the following resources useful:
The Privy Council cases: Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei (1875-1990) at GM4.G
The Privy Council digest [India] (1836-1930) at GK1.H.1
Privy Council digest: a digest of decisions of Her Majesty's Privy Council in appeals from West Africa (1841-1964) at GH1.H.2
Privy Council judgments: opinions of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in appeals from West Africa (1841-1973) at GH1.G.3
Privy Council judgments in cases heard and determined on appeal from India which are not reported in the Indian law reports (1876-1897). Available electronically via LLMC Digital
Privy council law: A synopsis of all the appeals decided by the Judicial committee (including Indian appeals) from 1876 to 1891 inclusive; together with a précis of all the important cases from the Supreme court of Canada, in which special leave to appeal has been granted or refused, or in which appeals have been heard. Kept in reserve collection and available electronically via LLMC Digital
Privy Council decisions: related papers
In 2010/2011 a collection of Judgment texts from the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council's Library in Downing Street was scanned and included in the the BAILII Privy Council Decisions database. A special collection of rare related records is held by IALS in paper only. There are many Canadian appeals and selected appeals from over 35 other countries. These texts are far more detailed than the 8000 reported decisions. For most cases, the documents held at IALS are the Judgment (J), Case for the appellant (A), Case for the respondent (R), and Pleadings (P).
IALS Library's collection comprises the following papers, which are arranged by year and judgment number (not appeal number).
- 1866-1985 in print in reserve collection (before the 1940’s the set is incomplete and contains mainly Canadian cases)
- 1986-2003 on Microfiche
- 2005 onwards on CD-ROM
The following finding tools are available. Ask Library staff for assistance:
- 1800-1990: Two sequences of cards, one arranged by party name and one by country, are located in the reserve collection
- 1986-2003: A printed list of cases at the beginning of each year of Microfiche
- 2005 onwards: A list at the beginning of each CD-ROM
Larger countries in the Commonwealth publish legal encyclopaedias which aim to be comprehensive guides to law in the relevant jurisdiction. They summarize statute and case law under particular headings. The authoritative encyclopaedia series that covers the law of England and Wales is Halsbury's Laws of England, which is available in IALS Library both in print at shelf GA2.H.10 or electronically via Lexis Library. Superseded volumes are kept in the reserve collection in the basement, please check the Library Catalogue for full details.
Previously, separate series were published to complement Halsbury's Laws of England with references to local law. Examples of these supplementary series include the Canadian Converter, Australian Commentary on Halsbury's Laws of England and the New Zealand Commentary on Halsbury's Laws of England. These complementary series have gradually been replaced by encyclopaedia series for jurisidictions in their own right, rather than in reference to English law. The publisher LexisNexis has extended the Halsbury's Laws of... series to include other jurisdictions including:
Halsbury's Laws of Australia [at shelf GD1.H.8]
Halsbury's Laws of Canada [at shelf GC1.H.16]
Halsbury's Laws of India [at shelf GK2.H.8]
Halsbury's Laws of Malaysia [at shelf GM4.H.4]
Halsbury's Laws of Singapore [at shelf GM4m.H.1]
Other publishers also publish legal encyclopaedias. If you don't know the title of an encyclopaedia but want to see what is available in IALS Library for a particular country, try running a Classmark search on the Library Catalogue using the country code followed by .H. For example:
GA2.H [for UK encyclopaedias and digests]
GC1.H [for Canadian encyclopaedias and digests]
GD1.H [for Australian encyclopaedias and digests]
If you don't know the country code refer to the World Country Index.
Law journals in Commonwealth countries
Journals publishing varies considerably between Commonwealth countries. Larger jurisdictions publish a considerable number of law journals whereas very small countries may have just one. To find out which are the key law journals for a particular country, it can be helpful to check a research guide such as the IALS Research Guides or Globalex. Whilst commercial publishers have traditionally controlled the law journal market, there has been a recent move towards open access journal publishing throughout the Commonwealth. Many institutions of higher education maintain a repository of open-access articles. The Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) is freely available online, and a very good way of finding open access law journals from around the world. Eagle-i, the online portal to good quality law websites, also includes details of open access law journals.
Finding journals in the IALS Library
The Library Catalogue includes a record for journal titles and does not include records of individual journal articles published within a particular series. To find out which journals are available for a particular jurisdiction try a a subject search on the catalogue for the name of the country followed by 'law periodicals'. For example:
Canada law periodicals
To find out which subscription databases include electronic journals for the country you are interested in, please refer to our Databases guide.
For guidance on searching online indexes to journals to identify relevant articles, please refer to our Journals guide. It is also worth remembering that whilst certain databases only include journals published in a particular country, these journals include articles that discuss law in foreign jurisdictions. For example it is worth searching the journals indexes on Lexis Library and Westlaw UK even if you need articles with a non-UK focus. Enter the name of the country as a subject heading in the search field.
Here is a selection of Commonwealth-wide law journals held at IALS Library.
Annual survey of Commonwealth law (1965-1977) in reserve collection
Commonwealth Lawyer (1984-) at FOL GB1.J.16. Older issues are freely available online
Commonwealth Law Bulletin (1974-) at GB1.J.12. Online access via HeinOnline
Commonwealth and comparative politics. Online via Taylor & Francis online. Journal of Commonwealth and comparative politics (1974-1993) at RES GB1.J.9
The table: the journal of the Society of Clerks-at-the-Table in Commonwealth Parliaments (1953-) at GB1.J.1
Commonwealth judicial journal (1973-) at GB1.J.13
Commonwealth legal education: newsletter of the Commonwealth Legal Education Association (1974-2011) at FOL GB1.J.15. Recent issues freely available online
Journal of Commonwealth law and legal education (2001-2009) at GB1.J.19
The loophole : the newsletter of the Commonwealth Association of Legislative Counsel (CALC) (1995-1998) at RES GB1.J.17 and all freely available online
Oxford University Commonwealth Law Journal (2001-) at GB1.J.18 and online via Ingenta
Regional Commonwealth journals
Some journals cover a particular region within the Commonwealth. For example:
Caribbean law and business (1989-90) at GN1.J.3
Caribbean law bulletin (1998-2002) at GN1.J.4
The Caribbean law journal (1952-53) in reserve collection
Journal of African administration (1949-1961) in reserve collection
Journal of local administration overseas (1962-1965) in reserve collection
Journal of African law (1957-) at GB1.J.7 and online via various subscription databases
The University of the West Indies student law review (1987-1994) at GN1.J.2
There are several conferences concerned with Commonwealth matters, some of which have been mentioned elsewhere in this guide. Below is a summary of the key conferences and proceedings.
Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings
Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGM), held every two years, are the Commonwealth's main discussion forum. At the meetings declarations, statements and memorandum are issued that declare the Commonwealth's function and core beliefs. Official communiqués of the meetings are published as UK Command Papers, in the Commonwealth Yearbook and by the Commonwealth Secretariat. All other documents and proceedings from the CHOGMs remain confidential for thirty years. The IALS Library does not hold the official communiqués from every meeting, but they are held at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies Library. Key Declarations are available on the Commonwealth website in the relevant part of the Our History timeline. A useful publication in the library reserve collection is Commonwealth Declarations: Declarations and Statements Issued by Commonwealth Heads of Government, 1971-1991. Command Papers are catalogued individually on the IALS Library Catalogue. You can search by title, subject, or series (if you know the command paper number).
Colonial / Imperial Conferences
The official forum for Commonwealth members to discuss areas of common interest, before regular Prime Ministers' meetings were established, was the Colonial, or Imperial, Conference. The first Colonial Conference was held in London in 1887 and they were established on a regular basis in 1897. They were re-styled as Imperial Conferences from 1911 to 1937. Proceedings of Colonial / Imperial Conferences were published as UK Command Papers. IALS Library has the proceedings from the Imperial Conferences of 1923, 1926, 1930 and 1937 in the reserve collection. All are listed separately on the Library Catalogue.
British Commonwealth Relations Conferences
The Royal Institute of International Affairs, more commonly known as Chatham House, is an independent international affairs think-tank and membership organisation. The Institute organised a series of Commonwealth Relations Conferences in the first half of the twentieth century. The conferences were both unofficial and informal with an aim to encourage open and frank debate. The proceedings of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th unofficial conferences are held in the Library's reserve collection. All are listed separately on the Library Catalogue.
Commonwealth Law Conferences
The first Commonwealth Law Conference (then known as the Commonwealth and Empire Law Conference) took place in London in 1955. It was established as a conference for members of Law Societies and Bar Associations in the Commonwealth. From 1965 onwards its remit was widened to include papers from prominent members of the judiciary and academic lawyers. The IALS Library has the proceedings from the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th Conferences, spanning the years 1955 to 1983. All are listed separately on the Library Catalogue. The conference is now organised by the Commonwealth Lawyers Association and is held every two years.
Constitutional conferences were held during the drafting of new constitutions of former UK dependencies prior to independence. The resulting documents were published as Command Papers. Many are held in IALS Library in print or are available electronically via the LLMC Digital platform. The best way to search for them is on the Library Catalogue. If you don't know the Command Paper number, run a Keyword search for the name of the country (or former name) AND "constitutional law" AND conference. For example:
nigeria AND "constitutional law" AND conference
rhodesia AND "constitutional law" AND conference
Dale W, The Modern Commonwealth (Butterworths 1983)
Dawson R M (ed), The Development of Dominion Status 1900-1936 (Frank Cass & Co Ltd 1965)
Dupont J, The Common Law Abroad (Fred B. Rothman Publications 2001)
Gardbaum S, The New Commonwealth Model of Constitutionalism: Theory and Practice (Cambridge University Press 2013)
Hatchard J and Slinn P, Parliamentary Supremacy and Judicial Independence: a Commonwealth Approach (Cavendish Publishing Limited 1999)
Jenks E, The Government of the British Empire (as at the end of the year 1923) (John Murray 1923)
Johnston W R, Sovereignty and Protection: a Study of British Jurisdictional Imperialism in the Late Nineteenth Century (Duke University Press 1973)
Judd D and Slinn P, The Evolution of the Modern Commonwealth 1902-80 (Macmillan Press 1982)
Kirkby D and Coleborne C, Law, History, Colonialism: the Reach of Empire (Manchester University Press 2001)
Miller R J and others, Discovering Indigenous Lands: the Doctrine of Discovery in the English Colonies (Oxford University Press 2010)
Parkinson C O H, Bills of Rights and Decolonization: the Emergence of Domestic Human Rights Instruments in Britain's Overseas Territories (Oxford University Press 2007)
Roberts-Wray K, Commonwealth and Colonial Law (Stevens 1966)
Swinfen D B, Imperial Control of Colonial Legislation 1813-1865: a study of British Policy Towards Colonial Legislative Powers (Clarendon Press 1970)
Wheare K C, The Constitutional Structure of the Commonwealth (Clarendon Press 1960)
Wight M, British Colonial Constitutions (Clarendon Press 1952)
Wilson R R, International Law and Comtemporary Commonwealth Issues (Duke University Press 1971)