(Originally published in Volume 1, issue 3, of Law Ireland)

This year marks the centenary of the completion of one of the most ambitious legal publishing projects ever: the first edition of The Law of England, being a complete statement of the whole law of England, edited by the Earl of Halsbury. It was published in 31 volumes, released between 1907 and 1917.

In his introduction, the Earl of Halsbury, a former Lord Chancellor, suggested that the book should ideally form the basis for a codification of the common law, although he acknowledged the challenges involved in such a task:

“A very small experience, however, of the infinite variety of the incidents of human life will convince us that such an ideal code is an impossibility, and that the utmost that can be done is to establish some principles by reference to which a question may be decided; but even then the principles must be stated so generally that their very generality may work injustice if rigidly adhered to.”

The driving force behind the publication of Halsbury’s Laws of England was not Lord Halsbury himself, but the publisher Stanley Shaw Bond.Butterworths publishers had been bought by his father Charles Bond, and Stanley took over in 1905. He immediately set about various ambitious projects, including the Encyclopaedia of Forms and Precedents. Halsburywas his brainchild.

He decided that the former Lord Chancellor would be the ideal editor, and sought to recruit him. According to legend, Bond was impatient to wait for an answer, so he followed him to the south of France where he was on holiday. Halsbury named the princely figure he wanted to take on such a task, and Bond wrote him a cheque for the sum straightaway, without negotiation.

The first edition of Halsbury can be of particular use to Irish lawyers. Notwithstanding the work’s name, it draws on the written judgments of Irish and other common law jurisdictions. More pertinently, it amounts to a comprehensive statement of the common law as it was on the eve of Irish independence, most of which which was carried into the law of the Free State by Article 73 of the 1922 constitution. The subsequent divergence between Irish and UK law means that later editions of Halsbury can be of less value in relation to some issues.

Second hand sets of the first edition can be bought at a reasonably low price. But a good searchable electronic version has yet to be published. The work is now out of copyright, so it should not be too difficult to organise such a project. A fully scanned version can be found on the site archive.org, but its search facility is clumsy and slow. Perhaps an ambitious publisher could be found to support such a project on its centenary, supported – as was the first edition itself – by subscription from lawyers.

Mark Tottenham BL