I work for an organisation whose members speak many different languages. But suddenly one of the lawyers will speak a language that is not officially recognised by the EU, not alive and barely taught any more, not translated by the interpreters in the booth – and yet everyone in the room understands it.
That is because two of the great legacies of the Roman empire were law and language, and in particular the language of the law. There are numerous Latin legal phrases that remain current throughout the legal systems of Europe, whether common law or civil law, even by people who didn’t learn Latin at school. At the most basic level, we use common phrases like ad hoc, de facto, ad infinitum, de iure, in absentia, in loco parentis, modus operandi, pro forma and quid pro quo. In the specific area of the law, we have: nemo iudex in causa sua, ex turpi causa non oritur actio, ne bis in idem, nulla poena sine lege, res ipsa loquitur, ignorantia juris non excusat, and so on. I am sure the readers of this blog dream in Latin, and so have no problem with any of these words.
But what will survive of our own law and language? I am not an empire nostalgist, but if you ask me, the British empire was in these ways like the Roman, and our law and language will probably last for as long as Latin has. Certainly many English phrases have crept into foreign languages – ‘last but not least’, ‘fair play’ and ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ among them. If you live or travel abroad, you will hear English crop up often in an otherwise unintelligible stream of a foreign tongue. I assume that these and other phrases will survive when our descendants are teleporting in invisibility cloaks from one mega-city to another, and speaking mostly Martian.
But we have more difficulties in telling the legal future. Of course, even foreseeing what will happen tomorrow is impossible, let alone in centuries’ time. Our great current futurologist, Richard Susskind, is still waiting patiently for the end of lawyers.
First, we should look around to see what it is that distinguishes the common law from the other great legal systems. There are some fripperies which we can assume will not last very long: the wearing of wigs, for instance, will not be transplanted to the Planet Zog when human communities migrate there from a soon-to-explode earth, nor will the inexplicable (to extra-terrestrials) division between solicitors and barristers. But there are essentials that might. There is the principle of precedent, the tendency against codification, the adversarial system, and the presence of juries.
Even though these are eroding in the UK through a variety of causes – globalisation, increasing complexity of daily life, and membership of the EU among them – they continue to flourish elsewhere in the extended common law world, and I am happy to wager that they will last. Some poor law student in a virtual university of the third, fourth and fifth dimensions in the year 4000 will have to learn equitable maxims in the strange dead language of English, like ‘Equity follows the law’ or ‘He who comes into equity must come with clean hands’ (which doubtless themselves came from Roman law in the first place).
The second of our difficulties is whether we can claim that this has happened because of us, or because of the strength of the US’s cultural empire, of which we are now nearly all long-term citizens. Of course, I am aware of the historical origins of the US, making it just about possible to claim that what is theirs is ours, too. And in any case, does it matter whether it comes about through them or us? The main thing, surely, for the point of this piece is that what developed centuries ago in England will survive for further centuries.
We might be wrong. The French, for instance, have also exported their language and legal system, and therefore it might be ‘savoir faire’ and ‘le parquet’ which survive to a time when language has become a matter of electronic pulses from brain-chip to brain-chip. The old rivalry will be continued into the era of Star Wars and beyond.
I shall faithfully revert to my national allegiance, and so confidently predict that the future Secretary General of the Council of Intergalactic Bars of the Universe (CIBU) will one day be expressing wonder that so many of his members from different solar systems still express themselves in English legal phrases.
Jonathan Goldsmith is secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents about one million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs