WestPact 2018 Recap: Charting the Legal Systems of the West Pacific Islands: Tracking Down Primary Documentation

By Shay Elbaum

WestPacIslands.jpgVictoria Szymczak, Director of the Law Library and Associate Professor of Law at the University of Hawai’i William S. Richardson School of Law, led off the “Teddy Talks” segment of the program with a look into the process of creating her research guide, Charting the Legal Systems of the Western Pacific Islands, recently published by Hein. This guide grew from Szymczak’s collection development work in this area. Hawai’i is, of course, a Pacific island itself, and the mission of the UH School of Law expressly recognizes a responsibility to the Pacific region. As the only American academic law library in a region especially vulnerable to climate change, the library’s work with Pacific island legal systems is particularly timely. The uniqueness of these legal systems also drew Szymczak to this work; rather than “mixed” or “pluralist”, these systems are best described as “hybrid”, merging elements of indigenous and Western systems into a unified whole.

Two major challenges Szymczak faced were the complexity of Pacific island legal systems and the differences among them. Nearby islands can have vastly different legal systems, depending on – among other things – whether they had been colonized by France, Britain, or the United States; whether the indigenous culture was Melanesian, Micronesian, or Polynesian; and what the colonial status of the island was. Szymczak chose to focus only on five former British colonies for this guide, but still had to grapple with the differences between colonies, protected states, protectorates, and condominiums, the many name changes as islands went from independent to colony (or protectorate, or…) and back to independent, and the frustrating lack of citations to primary sources in many of the works she consulted.

The result is a detailed and eminently usable guide to researching the legal systems of Tonga, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Vanuatu, and the Solomon Islands. Szymczak helps the reader navigate through those complexities and more, and gives us the tools to identify, access, and interpret the relevant primary sources. In her presentation, she highlighted the many different lawmaking authorities in each nation during the colonial era, each with different powers and producing different kinds of law depending on the unique features of their nation. She also discussed some particularly useful sources, such as Hertslet’s Commercial Treaties; Hertslet’s contains primary documents relating to British commerce, and includes many Pacific island-related documents because of their locations along major trade routes.

Szymczak closed with some illustrations of the unique blend of customary and British law found in these legal systems. She gave the example of the Solomon Islands’ constitution, which provides for the continuation of certain colonial laws where not inconsistent with customary law. As a result, the courts of that nation must interpret and apply customary law alongside other sources of law.

This presentation packed quite a bit into the half-hour “Teddy Talk” time slot. I enjoyed learning about what goes into creating a resource like this – and now that I know about this guide, I’m looking forward to having an opportunity to use it!

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