Pacific Punch: Tropical flavours of mixedness in the island republic of Vanuatu

Sue Farran

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


Legal systems are not fixed in time but are continually changing and adapting, if not entirely, then at least partially—a little here, a little there, like a party punch that requires improvisation when the original ingredients start to run low. This process of change, compromise, and modification is particularly notable in “young” systems that are emerging from colonial rule but, rather like a young kangaroo, still very much in the colonial or neocolonial “pocket” or “pouch,” with debatable viability if they are cast out too soon or required to face the challenges of the world too fast. At the same time, however, the globalization of ideas offers a tempting “pick and mix” of possible alternatives for legal development once the young state does emerge.

This challenge to the nature and form of mixing is based on an examination of one postcolonial legal system, that of the Republic of Vanuatu in the South Pacific, which, in 2013, celebrated 33 years of independence. It is therefore a relatively young state, which prior to gaining its independence in 1980 was brought under the joint influences of British common law and French civil law. As a country of more than 80 islands, its modest population of around 250,0001 is predominantly indigenous Melanesian people with a strong sense of tradition and custom, including adherence to customary laws.

It might be thought that a country that was ruled in tandem by Britain and France for nearly 80 years and that to this day retains “the British and French laws in force or applied … immediately before the Day of Independence”2 would be a classical mixed jurisdiction, particularly because the laws appear in both languages (English and French are two of the three official languages of the country), and English and French are the languages of education.3 Such, however, is not the case. As this chapter will show, the possibility for a classical mix in Vanuatu has been thwarted and frustrated by various accidents of history. Nevertheless, a mix does emerge, perhaps not of the classical kind, nor of the second-reception kind, but rather a fluid, not quite definable mix, which, in a piecemeal response to pragmatic need, is giving rise to an emerging hybrid.

To understand how the legal system has reached its current cocktail, I have roughly adopted part of the structure of Palmer’s questionnaire, which he used to inform his book Mixed Jurisdictions Worldwide (Palmer 2001). I have had to depart from this questionnaire at times because Vanuatu does not fit all aspects of Palmer’s criteria. Nevertheless, the chapter starts from a presovereign past, taking into account the political forces that shaped Vanuatu’s legal system prior to its independence and following this trajectory through to the present day. The justification for this continuum of consideration will, I hope, become evident, because it is pertinent to the questions of whether, when, and how mixing occurred in the past or occurs today and what were—or are—the ingredients.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationMixed Legal Systems, East and West
EditorsVernon Valentine Palmer, Mohammed Mattar, Anna Koppel
Place of PublicationFarnham
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9781472431073
ISBN (Print)9781472431066
Publication statusPublished - 28 Dec 2014

Publication series

NameJuris diversitas


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