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Welsh Legal History

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The following is a guest post by Clare Feikert-Ahalt, foreign law specialist for the United Kingdom and a number of Commonwealth jurisdictions at the Law Library of Congress.  Clare has previously written many interesting posts, most recently: FALQs: Brexit Referendum and The Case of a Ghost Haunted England for Over Two Hundred Years.

Frequently, the four countries that form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland – do not get recognized as being separate countries, each with their own distinct legal history. Wales is often grouped together with England, when in fact it has a rich and diverse legal history of its own. It has also started to have a steady increase in legislative powers for areas that have been devolved to it as a result of the Government of Wales Act.

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A few of the volumes of Welsh Legal History (Photo by Betty Lupinacci)

Recently, the Law Library of Congress was fortunate to receive a donation of thirteen bound volumes of Welsh Legal History, prepared by the Welsh Legal History Society. These volumes are a valuable contribution to the Law Library’s collection of Welsh legal materials and cover, in detail, a history of the law in Wales. The volumes were presented to the Law Library during a lecture given by Professor Thomas Glynn Watkin.

Professor Watkin provided a fascinating lecture titled Devolution and the Law in Modern Wales. This proved to be both a very relevant and topical discussion of both historical events and the development of modern events in light of the impending exit of the UK from the European Union. Interestingly, particularly in light of the recent EU referendum vote, Professor Watkin noted that the United Kingdom has evolved, either adding or removing a country, approximately once every hundred years.

It is not possible to do justice to Professor Watkin’s fascinating lecture in such a short space or time, so this post will provide only a very brief overview of some of the points raised. Professor Watkin managed to concisely detail the legal history of Wales up to modern times. He noted that the Statute of Wales 1284 provided Wales with its own courts, and thus a distinct legal identity, and that Welsh law was completely replaced with the introduction of English law across Wales in 1535/36. Welsh legislation and English legislation were identical until the Sunday Closing Act was introduced in 1881, which applied only to Wales. This was followed by the Welsh Church Act 1914. These pieces of legislation were the first that saw a movement towards providing a greater voice to the Welsh people. Fifty years later, 1964 saw the creation of the Office of Secretary of State for Wales by Harold Wilson.

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v. 13 of Welsh Legal History (Photo by Betty Lupinacci)

Providing Wales with its own legislative assembly was no straightforward matter and in the first referendum, held in 1979, to determine whether Wales should have this legislative body, the vote was overwhelmingly against it. In the second referendum, held in 1997, the vote was closer than the Brexit referendum, with 50.3% of voters in favor of creating a legislative assembly and 49.7% against. The Welsh Assembly was subsequently created by the Government of Wales Act 1999. The areas of competence of the Welsh Assembly were significantly less than the Scottish Parliament, which was created at the same time. Over time, additional areas of legislative competence have been provided to the Welsh Assembly.

The draft Wales Bill, currently before Parliament, is expected to add more areas, although it is not as extensive as many were hoping. Professor Watkin noted that given the timing of the bill during the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, a great deal of uncertainty exists and many believe that the draft bill should be considered after the dust has settled and concrete plans are in place and underway for the UK exit from the European Union. Instead, he said, the bill looks likely to be pushed through and receive Royal Assent shortly.

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