The University Years – Taking Crime, Itself A Crime #1975 #bristoluniversity

In 1975 I started a law degree. It wasn’t, academically the wisest choice and I struggled to grasp what I was meant to be learning. It wasn’t my only struggle

When I signed up for a law degree, I really did have no idea what I was letting myself in for. At the introduction day we were given details of the subjects we would be taking in the first year. Interesting choice of verb that. ‘Taking’. Not learning or the passive ‘being taught’ as we had been at school. There was nothing passive about this course, oh no. Some would take it, wrestle it to the floor and beat it into submission, before claiming it as their own. Others would slip it inside their coat and try and sneak off with it without being seen. I’ve never been a fighter or involved in deception so rather hoped it would offer itself up to me to pick up, say thanks very much and pop out for a Devon pastry without working too hard. What I hadn’t anticipated was the bloody subjects would man the barricades and face us down. Boy, did the law fight back in those early weeks? If I was going to get anywhere, I’d need to engage the enemy.

So what did I learn?

I’ve already mentioned one subject we tried to grab hold of in those early weeks, one that behaved like soap with Parkinson’s: Tort, my understanding of which remained pretty elusive throughout that first term. I liked tort because it was something my friends had never heard of and lent an aura of mystery to my course, in ways someone studying maths or French struggled to impart. And the cases we studied were often examples of why writing fiction is nothing like as surreal as the real thing.

But there were three other subjects to whet the blank canvases of our imagination. Let’s take one here.

Criminal Law at least had a ring of familiarity, but peel back the charge sheet and it was an awkward mix of categories. There were what were known as common law offences – basically those that had been tutted over since Pontius had taken his Pilot exams, like murder and which were almost all created by precedent – basically some judge decided something and everyone else remained stuffed by his decision until another judge decided the first one was a tosser and found a way to ‘distinguish’ the first judge’s heap of juridical do-dos and impose his own decision on the rest of us.

Don’t you love English? We talk about being ‘distinguished’, indicating someone is worthy of our deference whereas legally it means finding a way to say the first decision sucked while maintaining the pretence it was actually brilliant.

The next category contained crimes that were made such by Parliament and, like most man-made law where the powers that be think they can get it right in one document, usually a dog’s breakfast. Some, like road traffic offences naturally needed statute but others, such as theft you’d assume had been around a while and would fall under category one. Theft had been ‘codified’, which was another way of saying buggered about with, in 1968 because the old law of larceny – that’s what we used to call theft – wasn’t fit for purpose like the professors in the law department. We had fun with theft and the statutory definition of taking something with the intention of permanently depriving the owner thereof.

On yes, the lingo. When you butt up against a ‘thereof’ you know you’re sinking into a pit of legal bollicky.

Mind you, that’s better than bloody legal Latin. I mean, give me a break. The Romans left when we began to take the piss out of their taste in mosaics in 300 whatever; we relegated the Church of Rome into the ecclesiastical second division on away goals five hundred years ago and still the law hung on to Latin like a security obfuscation- or maybe Latin hung on to the law like linguistic herpes. Whatever, in crime we had to struggle with things like the ‘mens rea’ and the ‘actus reus’ – in order to be banged to rights you not only had to do the deed but also consciously think about doing it. I think the only Latin expression I ever considered worthy of long term usage came in family law – I studied this in my second year – and was the tag given to the act of consummation of marriage – a necessary but not sufficient condition (Ha, another bit of bollicky) for a couple to be treated, legally as married. Delightfully the Latin expression was Vera Copula which we all thought should be the name of a sex goddess.

The third category came about because those who decided these things realised having strict conditions didn’t always get all of the grubby humanity they thought should be got and so mens rea and actus reus didn’t always have to apply – ‘we can’t let the little snotballs get away with that behaviour, Gervais’. So we studied the exceptions. These were intriguing but also frankly confusing crimes, which of course had a fancy name: the inchoate offences – basically not doing the deed but being tangentially naughty: conspiracy, attempt and aiding and abetting. Never let it be said you can’t both be incompetent and a criminal. Much like a lawyer, really.

I enjoyed studying crime and thought I’d actually taken to it rather well. Then I took my end of year exam, scraped a challenging lower second (what most people would call a ‘C’) and decided not to have anything more to do with it. I think that was a wise choice.

Next time, I’ll try and explain the other two subjects I took. I may fail.

About TanGental

My name is Geoff Le Pard. Once I was a lawyer; now I am a writer. I've published several books: a four book series following Harry Spittle as he grows from hapless student to hapless partner in a London law firm; four others in different genres; a book of poetry; four anthologies of short fiction; and a memoir of my mother. I have several more in the pipeline. I have been blogging regularly since 2014, on topic as diverse as: poetry based on famous poems; memories from my life; my garden; my dog; a whole variety of short fiction; my attempts at baking and food; travel and the consequent disasters; theatre, film and book reviews; and the occasional thought piece. Mostly it is whatever takes my fancy. I avoid politics, mostly, and religion, always. I don't mean to upset anyone but if I do, well, sorry and I suggest you go elsewhere. These are my thoughts and no one else is to blame. If you want to nab anything I post, please acknowledge where it came from.
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10 Responses to The University Years – Taking Crime, Itself A Crime #1975 #bristoluniversity

  1. If I was to go back in time and ‘take’ Law, which would never happen because I’m just not clever enough, but anyway, it would be criminal law! I bet it’s really interesting

    Liked by 1 person

    • TanGental says:

      I think some of it must be, such as they extraordinary case of R v Collins, a case of burglary. Mr Collins decided he wanted sex and disrobed to climb a handy ladder and take advantage of the equally naked young lady. Said lady, mistaking the naked and rather obviously aroused silhouette of Mr Collins beckoned him enter which he did. Only after a rather frantic and sweaty coupling did the young lady realise her mistake. The case hung on my Collins member. In order to be guilty Mr Collins needed to have entered the premises without permission with the intent to sexually assault the young lady. The question was at what point was he invited in. Had any part of of his person crossed the threshold prior to that invitation? Members of the jury, please decide. I believe it all hung on how well hung was Mr Collins….


  2. George says:

    Please tell me you’ve got an “I fought the Law and the Law one T shirt” or at least a picture of Vera Copula

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Seeing into the future to illuminate one’s life work is usually enhanced with a challenging lower second. Well done Geoff.


  4. I think the fact that you can even write coherently about this part of your life is impressive – there’s just so many foreign words and obscure amendments and in the end it’s all, you know, the law and asses and all that……. I’d have failed the first week!!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I can’t believe I’ve never heard of Vera Copula. I’d have thought the law student boyfriend who told me all about the snail would have wanted to talk about her too.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Jennie says:

    “Latin is a language as dead as it can be. It killed the ancient Romans and now it’s killing me.” Yes, that was our school chant about Latin. You definitely made a wise decision, Geoff.

    Liked by 1 person

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