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Legal history

Exploring the development of legal rules and practices

We aim to produce innovative research that sheds fresh light on received historical wisdom and pushes the boundaries of legal knowledge.

Our vision

Inspired by the contemporary relevance of Australia’s legal history, we aim to produce cutting-edge research that sheds fresh light on received historical wisdom. Our work pushes the boundaries of legal knowledge in aid of greater understanding of our legal system, and aims to inform the development of the law.

Our work

Legal history explores the influence of temporal, institutional and other conditions on the development of legal rules and practices. Historical analysis of key planks of the legal order – principles of private law, constitutional precepts, and criminal law practices – sheds new light on these topics. 

Scholarship based on historical research methods (and allied approaches such as socio-legal studies) offers fascinating and provocative accounts of law. We reassess issues that may be subject only to doctrinal analysis or examined via legal-philosophical analyses (the type of scholarship inspired by normative philosophical thinking), and critically evaluate assumptions and legal orthodoxies.

Our research impact

Our work has had significant impact:

  • Professor Anne Twomey’s historical work on the application of reserve powers has informed current vice-regal representatives concerning the precedents for the exercise of their powers and the conventions that govern them and affect their actions in crises. Her historical work on the Constitution of New South Wales is frequently relied upon by courts, ministers and the Parliament.
  • Associate Professor Arlie Loughnan’s research on the history of special verdicts, 'Historical Analysis in Criminal Law: A Counter-History of Criminal Trial Verdicts' will be published in the Oxford Handbook of Historical Legal Research, by M D Dubber and C Tomlins (eds.) (Oxford University Press) (forthcoming).
  • Dr Arlie Loughnan's current book project, on the historical development of criminal responsibility principles over the twentieth century, examines the relationship between these practices and extra-legal responsibility practices. 
  • Adjunct Professor Joe Campbell is studying the historical origins of equitable doctrine and reasoning processes.
  • Professor Helen Irving's recent research on the history of women's loss of citizenship through foreign marriage is published in her 2016 book, Citizenship, Alienage and the Modern Constitutional State: A Gendered History (Cambridge University Press). She is currently working on an ARC-funded project: 'Citizenship and Allegiance in Australian Constitutional Law and History'.
  • Professor Anne Twomey is editing an unpublished manuscript by Professor Pitt Cobbett on the Government of Australia that was not quite finished before Professor Pitt's death in 1919. It shows us how the interpretation and operation of the constitutional system was perceived immediately before the High Court's decision in the Engineers case radically changed constitutional interpretation.
  • Dr Tanya Mitchell’s research into the historical development of the summary criminal jurisdiction in NSW examines how the dynamic relationship between procedures, practices, actors and substantive offences has shaped the summary jurisdiction.

Our experts in legal history