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'The Examination of Everything' - Royal Commissions in British Legal History

Statute Law Review 31(1) , 24-46 (2010)

34 Pages Posted: 6 Feb 2010 Last revised: 23 Jan 2014

Barbara Lauriat

King's College London – The Dickson Poon School of Law

Date Written: February 6, 2010


Walter Bagehot asserted the necessity for British government to investigate as well as act: ‘[t]he great maxim of modern thought is not only the toleration of everything but the examination of everything’. Royal commissions have done just that: examining subjects ranging from spontaneous combustion of coal in ships, to copyright law, to the condition of framework knitters, to the practice of vivisection. This article suggests that the examiners also warrant examining; a thorough inquiry into a royal commission can be a valuable contribution to legal historical scholarship. Royal commission reports are known to be a rich resource for historians but are not often themselves the subject of study, individually or collectively. Yet, their presence and impact on the political and legal landscape has been profound. In the nineteenth century, law reformers with the goal of codification found royal commissions particularly well-suited to their objectives, initiating inquiries into criminal, property, and evidence laws, among others. Direct legislation, however, may not always be the benchmark of a successful royal commission. This article provides background on the nature and history of royal commissions generally as a quasi-governmental institution and dispels some common misconceptions. It then considers some of the challenges to examination of royal commissions and analyses previous studies. Finally, it proposes evaluative criteria and methodologies for the study of such commissions, calling for close study of individual royal commissions as a means of gauging their effectiveness and influence on subsequent legal development.

Keywords: Royal Commissions, British Legal History, Historical Methodology, Legislation, Committees Of Inquiry, English Constitution, Law Reform

Suggested Citation

Lauriat, Barbara, 'The Examination of Everything' - Royal Commissions in British Legal History (February 6, 2010). Statute Law Review 31(1) , 24-46 (2010). Available at SSRN:

Barbara Lauriat (Contact Author)

King's College London – The Dickson Poon School of Law ( email )

Somerset House East Wing
London, WC2R 2LS
United Kingdom

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