Asian Law Centre celebrates 30th anniversary

By Professor Pip Nicholson

Since the establishment of the Asian Law Centre (ALC) 30 years ago by Professors Mary Hiscock, David Allen and Michael Crommelin under its inaugural Director Professor Malcom Smith, it has undergone substantial change. As we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Centre in 2015, it is time also to reflect on these changes and future directions.

The establishment of the ALC preceded the active interest of Australian and international firms in legal practice in the region. It was a far-sighted move in the mid-1980s to develop a research and teaching program focusing on Japan and China. The Centre leadership, appreciating the significance of strong economic growth in Japan that would drive a need for commercial legal services, developed its capacity to research and write on the Japanese legal system: spearheaded by Hiscock and Smith.

In what was close to a global first, and certainly pioneering in Australia, this small group of East China experts led the introduction of Japanese law and Chinese law teaching in Australian law schools when Sarah Biddulph joined the ALC in 1989.

This group worked very closely with local and national law firms to forge their links in the region. Sarah Biddulph took leave from Melbourne Law School in 1998 to establish Blake Dawson Waldron's (now Ashurst) representative office in Shanghai, and Andrew Godwin (who joined the ALC in 2006) led Linklaters, also in Shanghai.

Arguably, the Centre became Asia-focused rather than East Asia-focused, with the part-time appointment of Tim Lindsey in 1990, while a member of the Victorian Bar. He first joined the ALC to undertake a review of Indonesian legal materials in English. At that time, there was almost nothing available, so the materials were created initially through a translation project. Tim then started the teaching and research of Indonesian law, the first South-East Asian jurisdiction to be included in the ALC's program.

Inevitably, Australian and then international law firms (the latter often through their association with the former) have become embedded in the region. As commercial expertise became locally dispersed, the research focus of the Centre grew from being largely commercial to including a greater emphasis on public law, while its teaching and doctoral supervision encompassed both commercial and public law issues.

While the firms were charting their own courses, the Centre underwent rapid growth under the leadership of both Malcolm Smith (1985 – 2000) and Tim Lindsey (2000 – 2012). The current Centre membership is double that of its early years. It now has an entrenched South-East Asian focus (Amanda Whiting - Malaysia, 1999) and Pip Nicholson - Vietnam, 1997)) sitting alongside its East Asian roots (bolstered when Stacey Steele joined in 2002); and most recently an India program (Farrah Ahmed, 2013). Tim Lindsey established the Centre for Indonesian Law, Islam and Society (CILIS) in 2013, building on its predecessor, the Centre for Islamic Law and Society.

The ALC saw not only the promotion of Asian law-focused scholarship at Melbourne, but also the establishment of the Australian Journal of Asian Law in 1999, an initiative of Tim Lindsey, Veronica Taylor and M B Hooker. This journal pioneered the publication in English of Asia-based scholars' analysis of regional legal developments. Recently, the ALC has launched its Briefing Paper Series to ensure a broader readership of its research findings.

ALC members' research traverses: human rights; Islam and Islamic Law; administrative power and its regulation; labour regulation; financial regulation; drugs law and practice; criminal justice and institutional dynamics, such as the role of courts and juries regionally; legal practice and lawyers; and the felt impacts of law and development. Reflecting on our research focus in this year alone, we will publish monographs on Drugs and the Death Penalty in South-East Asia, Human Rights in China, China Lexicon – Translating and Explaining Legal Concepts and a jointly edited text on Law, Society and Transition in Myanmar. Each of these publications advances our understanding of particular features and practices of regional legal systems fundamentally and each is in its own right a pioneering work.

Alongside our research, the ALC members are widely engaged in regional legal development. It is very common for members to advise governments (Australian and regional) on legal reform issues, including court reform; administrative law reform; labour law reform; and professional development, to name a few. ALC members also continue close interaction with legal practitioners.

Our teaching is bedded in our research. Each year, we offer a JD Legal Research Project (in 2015, Judicial Power in Asia), in addition to JD elective subjects and offerings in the Melbourne Law Masters. In 2015, 11 JD students spent a month in Delhi interning across NGOs, three commercial firms and a barrister's chambers in the new subject Law and Legal Practice in Asia. In 2016, we will introduce Economic and Business Law in Asia, taught in Hong Kong and Shanghai.

Looking ahead, the ALC has to be agile to continue to lead scholarship on Asian legal systems. Since 2013, we have had an India program, which greatly benefits from Dr Farrah Ahmed's stewardship. The adding of jurisdictions to the ALC will not, however, ensure its future. Countries of the Asian region are undergoing dramatic and rapid transformation. The change in each of these jurisdictions is important for Australia as well as within and between the countries of the region. The field of Asia-focused scholarship has been transformed by the rise of China and China-focused legal scholarship, as well as developments in other major jurisdictions in the region, particularly Indonesia, Japan and India. The need to engage in country-specific, regional and comparative research requires us to excel in and transcend country-specific research. This demands that we develop collaborative research projects with both local and international scholars, including with the next generation of bilingual scholars from the region, who have the benefits of local and international education in many cases, and are radically enriching Asia-focused research.

Concurrently, Australia's role in legal services has grown exponentially and many Australian-based NGOs are also active in the region. The ALC must reach into these groups, as it has always done, and continue to engage them. Travel and connectivity, together with detailed research, are key to remaining integral and vital contributors to debate, networks of scholars and dissemination of research findings.

There are numerous people to thank for their time and generosity over the past 30 years. We wish to extend our very best wishes to our Advisory Board, also our alumni. The well of support and encouragement we receive from our former students is a source of consistent inspiration.

This article originally appeared in MLS News, Issue 14, October 2015.