You can pretty much trust us lawyers to have ‘hang-ups’ about words, sentences, grammar and punctuation. Some of us make verbal submissions ‘in the face of the Honourable Court’ virtually every day; and if we are not doing that, then we are either reading or writing, as part of our daily work.
I must admit that recently I was a little taken aback when one of my clients pointed out that a legal document that I had drafted did not contain any punctuation. He was right, but this was because of the ‘ancient and authoritative tradition’ which means that certain documents such as wills, trusts and deeds are not punctuated.
Here is neither the time nor the place to discuss the rights and wrongs of the practice, but it is interesting to note that imprecise punctuation, can often lead to hilarious outcomes. The usual example given is the difference between ‘eats shoots and leaves’; and ‘eats, shoots and leaves’. The latter presumably referring to a bad-mannered visitor and the former referring to a friendly panda. Purists may prefer the example of ‘let’s eat, grandma’ versus ‘let’s eat grandma’. The former is a friendly invitation, whereas the latter is definitely not! The sentence ‘She finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dogs’ demonstrates that commas really do have an important role in life.
When I was a trainee solicitor, many moons ago, use of Latinisms, even in letters to clients, was pretty much de rigueur (necesse est facite), I mean ‘a must’. Now, 30 years on, I think ‘what was all that about? The practice should have been abolished ab initio!’
Actually, in 1730, Parliament passed a decree outlawing ‘court room Latin’; and in 1998 the then Lord Chancellor decreed that such phrases as in camera (in private), ex parte (without notice) and subpoena (witness summons) should be forever banned from the legal arena. The odd thing is that everyday Latin expressions such as status quo, mea culpa (my bad), and pro bono, are used by my clients ad nauseam!
On a serious note, language in law is really important. Language to a lawyer is a bit like a chisel to a chippy. ‘You ain’t gonna get far if it ain’t sharp!’
Sir Roger Casement, the Irish nationalist, was executed in 1916, when a comma was inserted in a legal provision (the Treason Act 1351), which meant that acts of treachery committed abroad, were just as treasonous as acts done ‘……traitorously within this realm of England’. That is where the idiom ‘hung by a comma’ (a legal technicality) comes from. Had the learned Court of Appeal Judges accepted, as usual, that the original parchment had not been punctuated, Sir Roger’s neck would, quite literally have been saved.
Punctuation in statutes is relatively recent, and where the lack of punctuation meant ambiguity or worse, confusion, Judges would look to original or contemporaneous documents to glean clarity. That is what happened in 1773 when Eliza Barrow of Skaneateles, New York, stood to gain a fortune depending on how the words ‘aliens duties customs and impositions’ was punctuated. Putting an apostrophe after the word aliens, meant she was in the money. Putting a semi-colon after the word aliens meant she was not. To her immense joy, the apostrophe won the day.
Poets among you will be familiar with the use of caesura (an unpunctuated pause). In 1989 the English Court of Appeal deployed caesura to ‘render sensible’ a contractual provision. My clients usually tell me that the Court of Appeal is full of artists of the urinary variety – it is in fact full of poets.
That reminds me, when suspects are arrested, the officer usually takes a note of the first thing they say following arrest. These are known as ‘verbals’ which are then solemnly read out in court. Imagine my horror when early in my career, one of my ‘regulars’ was alleged to have ‘verballed’ when asked if he wanted to nominate a solicitor: “I’ll have the black guy, he kicks arse!”
For more information about Bastian Lloyd Morris, visit www.blmsolicitors.co.uk or call 01908 546580.