Book Review: Charting the Legal Systems of the Western Pacific Islands, by Victoria J. Szymczak

chartingthelegalsystemsofthewesternpacificisland
By Susan Gualtier

In a recent blog post, Shay Elbaum recapped a 2018 WestPac conference program in which Victoria Szymczak, Director of the Law Library and Associate Professor of Law at the University of Hawai’i William S. Richardson School of Law, discussed the creation of her new legal research guide, Charting the Legal Systems of the Western Pacific Islands, which was recently published by Hein.  Although I was not personally able to attend WestPac or hear Ms. Szymczak speak on this topic, I had already received Hein’s announcement regarding the new guide and was anxious to see it in person.

Charting the Legal Systems of the Western Pacific Islands is unique for a research guide in that it contains quite a bit of context.  It covers history, defines important British colonial legal terms, and lays out clearly the challenges specific to legal research in the Western Pacific Islands.  At only 60 pages long, the book offers enough background information for the researcher to feel confident in beginning to look at primary sources.  Szymczak also recommends several treatises on both the British colonial system and the Western Pacific that can provide the researcher with more in-depth information.

The book is also unique in that it is very much focused on historical resources, specifically those created during British colonization in the Western Pacific.  Szymczak explains the different types of colonial documents that researchers may need to locate and identifies sources where those documents might be published.  She also describes how legislation and the judiciary operated in the Western Pacific Islands under British rule, and the ways in which native or customary law were applied during that period.  Szymczak discusses various instruments of customary law, including native courts and island and local councils, which were established during the colonial period, and even mentions a few ways in which the researcher might approach finding evidence of customary law from that era.  An entire chapter is devoted to archival research and secondary sources, such as historical newspapers, that can help to “fill in the gaps” in the historical record created by primary legal documentation.

The book wraps up with several chapters on post-independence sources of law.  Again, significant context is provided in order to help the researcher understand the history and legal structure post-independence.  Szymczak discusses open access online sources, as well as print sources specific to the jurisdictions covered in the book.

It is rare that a research guide is also such an interesting read, but I very much enjoyed this guide and learning about the legal history of the Western Pacific Islands.  I would recommend this book to anyone interested in colonialism, the Western Pacific, or customary and indigenous law.

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