Records of the Judicial Committee

Dr. Nandini Chatterjee

The records that document the proceedings of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council are many and various. Of these, the most easily accessible are the judgments in cases decided by the JCPC. For a discussion on judgments and how to access them, see:

Judgments of the JCPC

This website is principally concerned with the ‘Printed Papers’ or detailed case records that were produced prior to every appeal to the JCPC. Until recently, bound volumes of such Printed Papers used to be housed at the Committee’s library on Downing Street, with copies being sent to two or three other places: the House of Lords library (which were then transferred to the British Library) and one or more of the Inns of Court. The Judicial Committee Library’s own set (which is also the fullest one) is currently being transferred to the National Archives. This project was conceived of in relation to this set; however, due to difficulties of access, it progressed on the basis of the partial copy available at the British Library.

The texts of judgments are no more than the tip of the iceberg as far as historical records are concerned. Due to procedural rules [1. For an idea of the rules, see William Macpherson, The practice of the Judicial Committee of Her Majesty’s most honourable Privy Council (2nd edition, London; Henry Sweet, 1873); and Thomas Preston, Privy Council Appeals: a manual showing the practice and procedure in colonial and Indian appeals (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1900).], the Judicial Committee required two complete sets of printed records to be produced for every case, and these included: The cases for the appellant and respondent (as framed by their solicitors), the record of proceedings from the first court upwards (including any depositions and affidavits) and all exhibits, with the entire set running from 150 to 800 printed pages, of various sizes and including, in some cases, very large foldouts. These were bound together with the judgment and the Order in Council (the official form of the decree). In many cases, especially for countries such as India (which sent the largest number of appeals to the JCPC), such records from lower courts are no longer available. The availability of the JCPC Printed Papers in the UK is therefore a valuable resource for scholars and independent researchers working on Britain and territories previously within the British empire, because these are very dense records that allow the situating of law and the legal process in their social context.

These case-records or ‘Printed Papers’ are said to occupy approximately 237 metres of shelf-space in the  preliminary JCPC size report   produced by the National Archives. At the British Library, there is a close but not exact copy of these papers, called JCPC Judgments and Documents, which runs from 1861 until 1950, after which date, there are several separate series. These are open to research and although housed at a remote location, may be ordered up fairly easily, but very few researchers have in fact used them. I have mentioned above that India was the biggest source of appeals to the Judicial Committee but for a fuller sense of the range of jurisdictions from which the Judicial Committee took appeals, please consult the catalogue on this website.

In addition, there is a collection of papers in the India Office Records, which belonged to the Legal Adviser, or the in-house solicitor appointed by the East India Company and later the India Office. These consist of 1088 uncatalogued boxes and folders, of which around 700 pertain to Privy Council Appeals. These are much less systematic than the two series described above, but they have certain advantage over them. Firstly, these boxes contain records of Indian cases from the early nineteenth century (covered by the National Archives as-yet-inaccessible records, but not the British Library’s copy series), and secondly, they contain records of cases for which leave to appeal was sought but refused. An imperfect card catalogue of these papers exists, and may be consulted; please contact the reference desk at the Asia, Africa and Pacific Collections Reading Room, British Library.

The Legal Adviser’s papers did not contain papers for every case appealed from India, but quite possibly only those cases which concerned the Government of India or the India Office, being high profile criminal cases, or involving the government as party to a civil dispute. Such cases naturally generated a great deal of correspondence in other government department, which are retrievable from within the mass of Public and Judicial department records of the India Office (the PJ files). These include references to particular cases as well as bureaucratic or political debates on legal reform. In 1932, for example, the Viceroy of India, Lord Willingdon, complained to the Secretary of State for India about the loss of deterrent effect due to the delay in executing death sentences due to appeals made to the Privy Council. Considering of ‘particular importance in the present situation in Bengal that terrorists sentenced to death should be hanged without undue delay’, he requested the Secretary of State to consult with his legal advisers to find a way of treading the ‘delicate ground in putting forward any proposition to the Privy Council which implies some curtailment of the subject’s right of appeal to the Sovereign.’ [2. ‘Procedure for submission of petitions for mercy and appeals to Privy Council in death sentence cases’, L/PJ/8/77, Paper 529.]