WHAT IS THE LANGUAGE OF THE LAW
LEGAL RESEARCH AND APPROACH TO PROBLEMS
There are several techniques or methods of legal reasoning and approach to problems. However, before we examine the techniques or methods, lets first of understand the language of the law.
The language here does not mean lingua (latin word for ‘tongua’), but rather, the combination of words, phrases etc. for purposes of communications. Language still remains the best invention for verbal or written communications. It is also the vehicle for conveying thoughts and reasoning. ‘Words’ on its part has been defined as ‘the components and spare parts of language’. This article shall be devoted to the consideration of certain characteristics of legal language which though may not be peculiar to law, but which certainly set it apart from ordinary language.
Law is usually, but not invariably, worded in general language form. The main reason that informed expression of law in general terms is the realization that any law made will apply to a wide spectrum of people in different circumstances. It then becomes a problem how to formulate a law that will not be so specific or restricted in the application as to overlook other possibilities or variation of circumstances that may arise in future. For instance, section 316 of the Criminal Code (cap C38 LFN 2004) provides “that any person who unlawfully kills another under any of the following circumstances is guilty of murder:
- If the offender intends to cause the death of the person killed or that of other people;
- If the offender intends to cause to the person killed or to some other person some grievous harm;
- If death is caused by means of an act done in the prosecution of an unlawful purpose, which act is of such nature as to be likely to endanger human life;
- If the offender intends to do grievous harm to some person for the purpose of facilitating the commission of an offense; if death is caused by administering any stupefying or overpowering thing for either of the purpose last aforesaid; and
- If death is caused by willfully stopping the breath of any person for either of such purpose.
The above provision is wide enough to cover a situation where a person kills another whether, by shooting, poisoning or strangulation provided the killing is intentional and without lawful justification.
The same characteristic of legal language of the law can be seen in relation to case law sources. It is possible to regard the famous case of Donoghue v Steveson (1958) 3 FSC 46 as establishing that a manufacturer of ginger beer owes a duty not to allow snails not to enter into the product, that being the specific facts before the court. But according to J.H. Farrar, to express authority in this highly specific way would not be helpful. It would make it difficult to produce future case law decisions. It would hinder the development of broader case law principles. This is because the case could only serve as a precedent in cases where the manufacturer of ginger beer has negligently allowed decomposed snails to get into the bottled beer. It will not apply for instance where a manufacturer of milk negligently allowed germs to get into the canned milk. Consequently, the principle in the case has been expressed at a higher level of generality as establishing that a manufacturer of consumer goods owes a duty of care to the final consumers of its goods to ensure that the product is free from all defects that may cause health problems.
It suffices to point out that in making the generalization, the effort is usually made to ensure that the law is not so fluid as to lack specific object, focus, and scope of application. For instance, for the application of the principle in Donoghue v Steveson (1958) 3 FSC 46 to be sensible, it has to be limited to manufacturers of consumable goods and cases where the defect in the good consumed has resulted in proven health problems. It will too wide, for instance, to extend the same principle to the manufacturer of steel or cases where the consumption of the goods has simply caused ‘mere irritation’ or economic loss to the final consumer.
Everything I am saying is that the language of the law should be broadly given to get to all other circumstances of life.