Monday, November 13, 2006

The Law

Once I was told by an extremely good lawyer, who happened to be Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia and senior member of a firm put together by a member of my father's congregation, that I too should have been a lawyer, but that the first judge I appeared before would have had me hanged out of jealousy. In revisiting this remark, my defense is that I have never pretended to undue modesty. In fact, what modesty I do have, I am quite proud of. Anyway, back to "the law", if you recall the title of this column.

The law is an institution, a very human institution, and, of course, depends on the premises of those establishing it, which in turn depend on the definitions of the words in those premises. Rapidly we come full circle; to quote Humpty Dumpty: "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less." (To which Alice demurred, "The question is, whether you can make words mean so many different things". And Humpty replied, somewhat ominously, "The question is, which is to be master —- that's all".) If we pursued this line of reasoning, we would find that making law, administering it, amending it, and understanding it are all impossible, in a certain sense.

So definitions are impossible to get any absolute agreement on, although there is no lack of trying -- witness the Charter of Rights, with its "notwithstanding" escape hatches. I would recommend that we have a Common Law, like the U.K., where we have judges refer to past decisions and defend departures from them. And the meanings of all the words in that previous sentence are perfectly clear, of course.

17 Comments:

At 3:25 PM, Anonymous sereneAmbition said...

Not sure if I want to saying something about language -- "words are like the knife of the carver..." or more to the point, something about the law. I have noted from time to time that lawyers go to school to learn to take the context out of language, while I have dedicated my life to putting it back. Just as I observe the bureaurcrats in Ottawa seeking to define away all judgment and nuance and exceptions in their regulations, I observe that our Cartesian love affair with objectivity is eroding away what it means to be human and the possibility we are as the species that creates reality through language.

 
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