Exhibition: A Court at the Crossroads of Empire

A free exhibition, ” A court at the Crossroads of Empire: Stories from the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council” was held at the UK Supreme Court, London on from July 2014 until 26 September 2014.

The exhibition was curated by several members of the research network, led by Nandini Chatterjee, Stacey Hynd and Charlotte Smith. It was funded by the UK Supreme Court itself, and by several others academic and legal sponsors.

The exhibition was formally inaugurated by Lady Hale, Deputy President of the UK Supreme Court, and the opening lecture on “Empire, Lawyers and Rule of Law” was delivered by Professor David Anderson, University of Warwick.

Within the exhibition, dramatic case studies highlight the personal impact of the JCPC’s colonial era decisions, in addition to their wider political and legal significance. Stories include those of a British doctor working in Ghana in the 1920s, who was charged with the murder of his wife. He was tried under Ashanti regulations without defence counsel or jury, and without right of appeal and his subsequent conviction and death sentence sparked an outcry in Britain. Although the doctor’s appeal to the JCPC was allowed on different grounds and his death sentence commuted, his case drew attention to the harsh nature of criminal procedures for African defendants. This helped encourage the Ashanti government to change due process in British West Africa. There is also the case involving a descendant of Colonel James Skinner,  a Scottish-Indian soldier who recruited a cavalry regiment for the English East India Company and died a wealthy man with a large and complex family. In 1871, the JCPC decided his great-granddaughter should be removed from her widowed mother’s custody because family members had alleged that she had converted to Islam and entered into a polygamous marriage, thereby losing the capacity for acting as guardian to the child of a Christian father.

An interactive ‘globe’ sat at the heart of the exhibition, underlining the geographic breadth of the court’s impact and enabling visitors to find out more about the JCPC’s links with a range of countries.

Coverage was received in The Times, Solicitors Journal and on the Culture 24 and Timeout ‘Things to do’ event websites and in legal magazines. A feature was written on the AHRC website. The exhibition was publicized prominently on the UKSC and JCPC websites and the exhibition’s web page received 3,047 unique visitors who on average spent over 3 minutes reading the information.

Debate days were held with four secondary schools who were invited to debate a historic JCPC case and take on the roles of appellants, respondents and judges. Over 75 students attended over the four days. The days were very successful and the students seemed to enjoy the debates.

Over 26,000 people visited the Supreme Court and Judicial Committee of the Privy Council during August and September compared with 19,600 for the same period in 2013, an increase of 33%. Although many would have come to see the court, a proportion of visitors came specifically to see the summer exhibition.

361 visitors chose to submit a feedback form. Respondents were asked to rate the exhibition overall with 1 indicating it needs some improvements and 5 being excellent. 84% gave a favourable response of either 4 or 5 out of 5.

For further details, see A Court at the Crossroads of Empire.

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