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.