The Age of Emergency


This article argues that the period from 1914 to 1926 saw a dramatic expansion in the development and dissemination of new forms of repressive public order legality within the British Empire, in a manner that has had enduring negative influence on legal orders around the world up to the present day. The article begins with the wartime years, exploring the innovations and extensions in repressive legality that took place both in Britain and around the empire. It then turns to examine the effect of the war's end, which, far from bringing the new repressive legal orders that had been put in place to an end, saw them extended in order to attempt to address political challenges to the status quo that came in the war's wake. Along the way, the article highlights the close relationship between martial and emergency law on the one hand and more regularized forms of repression on the other. In addition, the article draws attention to the fact that, however much the war may have provided a pretext, the repressive legal orders that were adopted were primarily aimed at suppressing movements fighting for greater rights and representation, be it in the form of a more egalitarian polity at home, or colonial independence across the imperial world. The article concludes with a brief exploration of some of the many ongoing legacies of the repressive approaches to law developed in the period across the former British colonial world.


repressive legality, legal history, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom of expression, human rights, emergency law, comparative law, transnational law, law and empire



Christopher Roberts (Chinese University of Hong Kong)



Publication details



All rights reserved

File Checksums (MD5)

  • 20.1.3: c67fd41d561efc1f5f3ed49c594e8579