Thursday, December 29, 2011

A word about legal doublets

A certain law firm has been undertaking a letterbox drop, exposing the supposed evils of the Succession Act and offering (no doubt for a fee) to assist you to prevent middle-aged drug-addict delinquent children getting their hands on an estate you'd rather leave to your cat. But I digress.

The Estate Defence Lawyers website contains the following endnote:

"A legal will is sometimes called a last will and testament or will and testament because the law sometimes uses the Norman and the English words together as a legacy of the Norman conquest of England. In fact will and testament are synonymous, like devise and bequeath, nook and cranny, cease and desist, hue and cry, goods and chattels and null and void."

This, and similar assertions, are often made particularly in the halls of schools of legal practice encouraging the use of so-called "Simple English". 

However, let there be no mistake: whatever their etymology, the first and second word in each doublet ARE NOT SYNONYMOUS.

A will and a testament are historically different things. Historically, a will referred to a disposition of real property and a testament referred to a disposition of personal property. So "Last Will and Testament" was used to describe the instrument by which the whole of one's estate (consisting of both real and personal property) could be disposed of as a consequence of one's demise. 

Going through the roll-call of supposedly synonymous legal doublets:  

  • "hue" referred to the use of a horn whereas "cry" referred to shouting;
  • "devise" referred to the disposition of real property whereas "bequeath" referred to the disposition of personal property (and for completeness, neither included a gift of money, hence the traditional use of the triplet "give, devise and bequeath");
  • "nook" generally refers to a corner (or at least a small, partially enclosed area of a larger room) whereas "cranny" refers to a crack or similar crenellation (it is not clear that this is a legal doublet at all);
  • "cease" required someone to halt an activity, whereas "desist" required them to not take up the activity again at a later time;
  • "goods" refers to moveable property whereas "chattels" includes not only moveable property but also refers to intangible (and therefore immovable) property such as choses in action (particularly negotiable instruments and securities) and money which have never been considered "goods".

Another interesting aspect of the website is their promotion of libertarian thinkers such as Locke, Mill and Bentham in support of their campaign against the family provision sections in the Succession Act, and even call in aid one Elizabeth Tudor who, it is claimed, famously captured "the great principle of liberty" when she said:  "I have no desire to make windows into the souls of men [sic]".  What Elizabeth in fact meant when she said (by traditional attribution) "I have no desire to make windows into men's souls" was that she did not care what the citizenry in fact understood by the formularies of the Church of England, just that they assented to them.  Hardly a "great principle of liberty" at all, but no doubt a sentiment that prevented the heads of many being liberated from their bodies for heresy.