The Growing Private International Law Community: Report from the Conflict of Laws Section of the Society of Legal Scholars Conference, September 2018, Queen Mary University of London – Michael Douglas

Globalisation has altered the makeup of the work of domestic courts all around the world. Civil litigation is increasingly cross-border. Yet despite the frequent recognition that private international law (conflict of laws) is increasingly important, the subject is still a bit of a niche, at least in Australia. It is a compulsory subject at Sydney Law School but many other law schools do not offer it at all. A handful of Australian academics specialise in the subject, as a handful of barristers hold themselves out as specialists. Happily, that smallish circle is steadily growing.

The establishment of the Conflict of Laws section of the Society of Legal Scholars (‘SLS’) annual conference demonstrates the growing status of the subject in academia. The SLS is the UK’s association for law professors, teachers and scholars. It is over a century old; the likes of Birks and Burrows number among its past presidents. The SLS ran a Conflicts section as a ‘trial’ at the 2017 conference, following the leadership of Oxford’s Andrew Dickinson. It was obviously a success; the section was repeated at this year’s conference. Under the theme of ‘Law in troubled times’, the 2018 conference was held at Queen Mary University of London. I was lucky enough to attend.

The section was comprised of papers delivered by a diverse spread of academics. There was representation from Spain, the US, Singapore, Australia, the UK, and many other parts of the EU. Senior members of the global private international law community were in attendance—like Aberdeen’s Paul Beaumont. But it was not just Profs; there was also a dedicated early career panel.

In terms of subject matter, some personal highlights included:

  • A paper on construction of choice of court agreements by John Coyle, University of North Carolina. (John had conducted some empirical research demonstrating that American lawyers were largely ignorant of essential aspects of the operation of choice of court agreements.)
  • A paper on ICOs and investor protection by Sara Sánchez Fernández, IE University. (Yet another reminder that Savigny-style analysis of a ‘seat’ may be ill-fitted to subject matter on the internet.)
  • A paper on domicile and same-sex relationships by Lauren Clayton-Helm, Northumbria University Newcastle. (Lauren explained that domicile rules are typically gender-centred, and perhaps need revision to take account of modern families.)

The papers were good, but the best thing about attending these events is forming relationships with attendees with similar research interests. The not-insignificant conference fees were worth the networking value alone. The paper I delivered at SLS 2018 reflected that: I co-presented with my friend, Bobby Lindsay, from the University of Glasgow. Bobby and I started a bromance a year earlier at the Journal of Private International Law (‘JPIL’) conference in Rio de Janeiro. We went on to collaborate on legal research; our SLS paper was on the enforceability of punitive damages in private international.

SLS was an academic conference, but private international law is obviously not just for academics. With that in mind, in early 2018, I co-hosted a conference on ‘Commercial Issues in Private International Law’ at Sydney Law School. The conference brought together academics, judges, barristers and solicitors for a day of consideration of contemporary problems for cross-border aspects of commercial law. The papers will soon be published by Hart as an edited book. Fingers crossed that Sydney continues to hold similar conferences in years to come.

For those hungry to attend another private international law event in 2018, I highly recommend the JPIL’s upcoming Asia Pacific Colloquium, which will be held in Japan in December. If the Rio conference is anything to go by, it will be fantastic.

As for 2019, apart from another SLS, the JPIL will be holding its ‘main’ conference in September in Munich. For the call for papers, see the latest issue of the JPIL. The conference promises to be a stimulating event. And being in Munich just before October can’t hurt, either.

Attending events like these has opened my eyes to how private international law is done outside of Australia and outside of the common law tradition. SLS 2018 provided plenty of food for thought; I came away with ideas for a year’s worth of research projects. I also came away with a few new friends to bounce ideas off. Being part of the ever-expanding private international law community is great. I encourage anyone reading this to join us.

Michael Douglas is a Senior Lecturer at UWA Law School researching private international law, and a consultant at Bennett + Co, Perth.