Descendants and Ethical Stakes

Nurfadzilah Yahaya's picture

Over the coming weeks, we will hopefully explore the challenges of researching and writing about historical cases of family law involving living descendants. At the last conference of American Society for Legal History in Washington DC, a great panel entitled “Tracing the Past into the Present: How Living Descendants Affect the Substance, Methods, and Ethical Stakes of Legal History” discussed the challenges of researching family law by collaborating with living descendants. A write-up of this insightful panel involving legal historians Barbara Welke, Daniel Sharfstein, Sam Erman and Mitra Sharafi is available here -

Family law is particularly fraught especially with ongoing cases involving inheritance or family trusts and endowments. With cases pending trial or in trial, sometimes descendants will approach legal historians to ask for advice, and for possible sources that could be used as evidence to support their cases. Occasionally, lawyers for the families will also contact historians directly to ask for suggestions on how to proceed with legal cases. I work on family trusts and endowments. Two years ago, a lawyer contacted me for my opinion on a case involving a big trust. The particular case was closed, but the trust tended to be disputed in court every 10 years. I pointed him to the relevant law reports and suspected I was ultimately not of much help. Having no formal training in law, I wonder too how much legal assistance I had to offer but I suspect this is not the sort of assistance lawyers wanted from historians. A few months ago, an interested party involved in that very case approached me after I gave a talk to ask my opinion on the very same issue. How should a legal historian navigate this terrain ethically? What is at stake for the scholar? As a historian, one must know how to animate one’s details, stage one’s scenes and ration one’s anecdotes. Do cases involving descendants involved in ongoing cases require a different kind of rationing? The World Legal History Blog welcomes discussions on this issue over the coming weeks. Contributions can come in the form of specific anecdotes, discussions on ethics, or simply think-pieces drawn from your historical research on different parts of the world.

All queries and contributions should be addressed to the editor, Fadzilah Yahaya at The blog's twitter account could be found at Follow us to get blog updates.