Recap: Asian Legal Information in English: Availability, Accessibility, and Quality Control

By Amy Flick

Because I frequently need to help students find primary authority of other countries, yet have no hope of finding materials published in Chinese, Korean, or Japanese, I was pleased to see a program on Asian Legal Information in English in the AALL Annual Meeting program. I was even more pleased to find the program interesting, useful, and supplemented with handouts.

Alex ZhangAlex Zhang was the coordinator, moderator, and introductory speaker. She started by stressing the importance of good, reliable translations, but noted that even “official” translations by government entities are still for informational purposes only. In presenting the portion of the program on finding primary law of China, she included:

  • The official site NPC (National People’s Congress) Database of Laws and Regulations. The search box is unreliable, so Alex recommended browsing by category, requiring some knowledge of the structure of Chinese law to find the appropriate category. She cautioned that the laws retrieved may not include the dates of coverage, making it unclear for the user if they have the most current version.
  • State Council Laws & Regulations
  • Commercial sources including Lawinfochina, Westlaw China, and Lexis China, all comparable, and expensive, but Alex is most familiar with Lawinfochina. She recommends it for comprehensive coverage and inclusion of the most recent laws, and for a citator link to amendments to laws.
  • Although case law is not considered primary authority in China, a Stanford Law School project is translating Chinese Guiding Cases.

Alex wrapped up by noting that good translation is hard: “the question in legal translation isn’t which one is right, but which one is less wrong.” She suggests comparing and contrasting multiple translations and asking experts for help.

 

Anne Cathrine Mostad-JensenAnne Mostad-Jensen presented on law of Hong Kong and Macau. For these jurisdictions, she stressed that it is particularly important to understand their histories. Because of Hong Kong’s history as a British colony, it has a hybrid system of common and civil law, and English is one of its official languages for legal publication. Sources for Hong Kong legal information in English include:

Macao as a former Portuguese colony has a civil law system. English translation is available for only select legislation and some indexes, not for caselaw, and the translations are not official. Sources include:

 

Juice LeeJootaek “Juice” Lee demonstrated resources on law of the Republic of Korea in English. Although South Korea has a civil law system, it has been influenced by U.S. common law. English translations are not official, but English is widely used, and there are English language versions of most government websites. However, terminology can be an issue because of differences in civil and common law. Most primary sources are available in English, and government publishers try to provide accurate translations. Juice warned that Korean law changes rapidly, and English translations may not keep up. There are also issues with understanding the differences between public, private, and social law. He recommended sources including:

 

Mike McArthurMike McArthur had the final presentation in the program on finding Japanese law in English. Japanese efforts to be more international led to a 2004 Japanese law requiring translation of Japanese laws. Laws are first made available in tentative translation before an “official” version is available. Of course, translations are still unofficial. Mike warned that the Japanese calendar has a different date system, so he provided a “cheat sheet” for Japanese dates.  Sources for Japanese law in English include:

  • The Ministry of Justice’s Japanese Law Translation The database of laws and regulations is searchable with multiple options (title, number, category), and it has a dictionary for finding Japanese legal terms.
  • The Supreme Court of Japan. Although Japan has a civil law system, Supreme Court decisions are relevant, and some are translated into English.
  • An additional resource for Japanese legal research is ministry reports and white papers, which are translated into English, and which include detailed statistics.

Mike reminded the audience, as did the other speakers, that a legal researcher working with foreign languages and translations can get in over their head quickly, and that they should reach out to a specialist for help.

 

All of the presentations in the program were outstanding, and I appreciate the hard work by the speakers in putting them together!

Book Review: Sharia and the Making of the Modern Egyptian: Islamic Law and Custom in the Courts of Ottoman Cairo, by Reem A. Meshal

By Angela Hackstadt

sharia bookReem A. Meshal. Sharia and the Making of the Modern Egyptian: Islamic Law and Custom in the Courts of Ottoman Cairo. (The American University in Cairo Press, 2014). 290 p. Hardbound, $75.00.

Sharia and the Making of the Modern Egyptian: Islamic Law and Custom in the Courts of Ottoman Cairo examines the sijill (the complete records of a judge or court) as a historical text where Ottoman state law, local custom, and Islamic legal theory intersect. According to Meshal, legal scholars have neglected the study of these documents and “an unfortunate consequence of this neglect has been the inhibition of research into legal theory and legal praxis and their osmotic influence on one another in a given political setting.”

Before the Ottomans, the concept of “court” was embodied in the person of a judge and held in any number of venues. Under the Ottomans, courts became fixed locations and, for the first time, legal documents became mass-produced and centralized. Judges were required to turn over their sijills to a professional archivist, who linked the documents to the court and the public archive. The rise of bureaucrats like professional archivists, notaries, and court experts meant that the authority of the written document would come to outweigh that of oral testimony.

Civil documents pertaining to things like personal disputes, property disputes, and marriages were given the status of “authoritative legal proof.” This impacted the autonomy of the individual by virtue of the citizens’ access to these records. Documents housed in an archive provided a static record that could be accessed under certain conditions; however, a copy of a document that could be carried or distributed would grant rights to the holder in the public sphere. “More than the archive, therefore, it is the millions of individual documents contained within it that provide the textual footprints of an ‘early-modern individualism,’ or proto-citizenship.”

The author’s focus on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Cairo matters because of the heterogeneous nature of the city’s population during a time when the state sought to harmonize state law with sharia. Meshal’s book discusses custom, state law, and Islamic jurisprudence without falling back on the Western binary of religious-versus-secular. She admits Western influence on the Empire but concludes that important developments were established prior to this influence. The author builds her arguments from sijills and other primary sources, as well from a variety of secondary sources. Chapters are organized by topic, with topic subdivisions including a concise chapter conclusion. This is a well-researched book and I recommend it for academic law libraries, particularly those that serve Sharia or Ottoman scholars.

Film Review: Invoking Justice

c834By Susan Gualtier

In my spring 2014 FCIL research seminar, I explored the idea of using documentaries to provide a visual representation of unfamiliar legal systems. One of the films that I chose to screen was Deepa Dhanraj’s 2011 documentary, Invoking Justice. The film was very well received by the students and led to several interesting group discussions, both during class time and on the course website. Student feedback strongly suggested that they found the film enjoyable, that it helped them to understand how religious (and, to an extent, customary and mixed) legal systems work, and that it encouraged them to think about how one might research legal issues or handle cases arising under these systems.

Invoking Justice focuses on a specific type of legal tribunal in Southern India, where family disputes are settled by local tribunals called Jamaats. These tribunals, which apply Islamic Sharia law, are made up entirely of men. Not only are their cases decided by men, but women are not permitted to be present at the Jamaat meetings and therefore have no opportunity to defend themselves or to present their side of the dispute. Invoking Justice follows a group of women who, recognizing the discriminatory nature of the all-male Jamaats, formed a women’s Jamaat in 2004 where local women could settle their family disputes or report discriminatory treatment by the traditional male Jamaats. By the time the film was made, the women’s Jamaat had already settled more than 8000 cases, “ranging from divorce to wife beating to brutal murders and more.”

The film suggests, though not overtly, that the women’s Jamaat functions not only as a tribunal, but also as an enforcement mechanism and advocacy organization. Its members are shown approaching male Jamaat members to questions their tribunals’ decisions and processes, and using the police force to compel male defendants to attend women’s Jamaat sessions when they do not take the tribunal seriously. Dhanraj follows several of the Jamaat’s cases from beginning to end, which helps to unify the film and provides a narrative element. The film also portrays the power that comes with open communication; the women’s Jamaat has been a galvanizing force for women in the region, and groups of women are shown in animated discussions of topics that would previously have been considered taboo in a public forum.

Invoking Justice is entertaining and visually appealing, and provides an excellent insight into how one form of local tribunal might operate. It also illuminates substantive issues relating to family law and women’s human rights under religious and customary law systems, and addresses issues of discrimination not only in the law itself, but in the procedural practices of the tribunals, the application of the law, and the enforcement of the tribunals’ judgments. Because there is no prerequisite to my FCIL research seminar, I have found that, by necessity, it must serve as a crash course in international law and world legal systems in addition to developing the students’ research skills. Having searched for a film that would entertain the students while at the same time illustrating the issues surrounding religious law, customary law, and informal tribunals, I found that Invoking Justice was an excellent choice. Invoking Justice is distributed by Women Make Movies and can be purchased from their website. My study guide for the film is available online through SlideShare.