A Tapestry of Laws: Legal Pluralism in Eighteenth-Century Britain

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The sustained and more powerful presence of the Westminster parliament following the Revolution of 1688-89 facilitated the passage of legislation on an unprecedented scale. Statutes, including thousands of local and specific acts, strengthened the ability of the central state to raise money and men, and for local interests to adapt and direct state activity to local ends. Because relatively little of this statutory activity was devised centrally, and was rather local, particular and limited, the impact of this growth was far from orderly or uniform. Building on research that has demonstrated the highly varied nature of eighteenth-century British state building, this article draws comparisons between the legal institutions and cultures of Britain and Europe. In the first instance, it puts greater emphasis on the importance of the legal system to policymaking. Through reassessing the trajectory of the caseload of European central and high courts, this article demonstrates that litigation remained an important means of law making, despite the “great litigation decline.” Secondly, the article shows that Britain was not only a statutory state but a judicial one. Like other European states, it remained governed by a “weak legal pluralism,” with statutes dependent upon multiple systems and tapestries of law for their enforcement and legitimacy. The persistence of pluralism, litigiousness and court initiative suggests that jurisdictional decentralization performed an important role in the making of the eighteenth-century British state and enabled the growing numbers of parliamentary statutes to be frequently amended or mitigated by judges.

4303 Historical Studies, 43 History, Heritage and Archaeology
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The Journal of Modern History
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University of Chicago Press
British Academy (pf160004)
I gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy (grant pf160004).