Saturday, July 06, 2013

Book review: “Law as a Leap of Faith” by John Gardner

A hankering for some difficult reading led me to click on "buy now" for the hard cover edition of "Law as a Leap of Faith" by John Gardner. He is Professor of Jurisprudence at Oxford.

I haven't had much of a look at jurisprudence since I was a law student. I had found HLA Hart's celebrated "The Concept of Law" and "Punishment and Responsibility" among the most awfully written, tedious and incomprehensible books I had ever been told I should read. My still largely-unread copies, on my shelves as I write, were lent to me all those decades ago, and the lender hasn't asked for them back.

I wanted the hard copy of Gardner's book because I knew I would be scrawling all over it as I struggled to grasp its meaning. I call him "Gardner" in imitation of the academics' habit of referring to each other by surname only, as if they were schoolboys or Great People like Socrates or Beethoven. I would rather call him John, as he seems a pleasant sort of chap, if his lecture in Auckland on reasonableness, which can be heard here, is any indication. But then people would wonder why I didn't call Hart "Herbie", and Dworkin "Ronnie" (which is what Gardner has called him: p 274, n7).

As a practising lawyer I have been content with what Gardner says (p 273) most lawyers like: the Austinian view of laws as commands; that is the nature of laws and that is all we need to know about that. I say "laws" because lawyers are concerned with "the" law, whereas legal philosophers tend to be concerned with "law" as a genre (p 184).

So, what does Gardner say about his approach as a legal philosopher? In his Preface he describes it in this way:

"Philosophy is not the art of compiling as many little thoughts as possible into as few big thoughts as possible, but the art of wearing every thought down to its rightful little size and then keeping it in its rightful little place. So the main mission of this book, as I see it, is unbundling: separating out disparate thoughts that have often been regarded, mistakenly, as part of some package deal."

There are 11 chapters, mostly based on previously published work or lectures. The first few chapters are, I thought, quite hard going, and it is eventually comforting to have Gardner admit in Chapter 9 that he finds some of the writing by his fellow philosophers difficult to follow (eg p 236: "Hart's treatment of morality ... is a mess") or simply wrong (eg pp 184-185 referring to Dworkin's critique of Hart's criteria for a legal system). Indeed in this book nearly all of the references to Dworkin are to what Gardner considers to be his errors.

Some initial difficulties arise from the technical terminology, which is not explained in a glossary. You need to quickly get used to thinking about "norms". Norms are, so it seems to me now, standards or rules of behaviour. Not an enormous insight, I admit, as this is pretty much the dictionary definition. They are not necessarily legal in nature, and there are lots of other sorts of norms: moral norms (and there is a process whereby these can become legal norms too), etiquette, rules of sports, rules of associations, etc (see p 296). Another important term is "legality". Although he seems to equate this with the rule of law at p viii of the Preface, Gardner uses legality more widely to refer to the quality a norm has when it is a legal norm. So Chapter 7, "The Legality of Law" is an inquiry into what is needed for a norm to be a legal norm.

I thought on first reading that there was a dreadful logical mistake on p 140, but, thank goodness, a hundred pages later it became clear that this was not so, thanks to Gardner's style becoming more reader-friendly (which is odd because the passage on p 140 was written in 2012, and that on p 240 in 1999: is he getting less clear as he grows up?) Could be me getting more used to the material as I read through from beginning to end. The chapters can be read in various orders, and the Preface helpfully provides what amounts to a roadmap for the book.

Following Hart (and Gardner tends to follow and improve upon Hart), an inquiry into the nature of law begins, not by analysing laws, but by considering what is required for a system of norms to be a legal system (p 179). I won't spoil your fun by telling you all of them, but very important is the requirement that the actions of the norm-applying officials can sometimes result in the making of more legal norms (p 180). Important too, and not noticed by Hart, is the legal system's claim to be supreme among the institutionalised normative systems (p 278). Legal norms are products of their legal system and encompass laws and rulings; the laws are of general application and the rulings apply to the parties in a case. Consideration of a ruling or a line of rulings in later cases may eventually result in development of a new law (eg p 185, 186-188).

Most laws are consistent with moral norms, so it is usually morally right for judges to apply legal norms. But there can be immoral laws, and this raises the question ("puzzle" p 189) of how officials become morally required to apply legal norms. Gardner calls this the main puzzle about law, and he says Hart was mistaken in saying that there is a generalised moral value in following laws (p 189). No, but officials are required to follow laws because a characteristic of legality is the binding power of the oaths taken by the officials, their contractual obligations, and the semi-voluntary obligations of their professions. Thus a judge must, in arriving at a determination, put justice above other moral imperatives such as kindness and prudence (191-192).

Laws have an inner morality, in a sense that reflects the quality of the means by which they serve their ends; it is preferable to describe laws as modal (concerned with means) rather than as procedural or substantive (pp 202, 206-207). Variations in the inner morality of different laws mean that not all laws live up to the ideals of legality. Hart thought there are two concepts of law, the wider positive law (law that is law because it satisfies the formal means by which it was made, so is correctly posited) and the narrower genre of law that lives up to an appropriate moral ideal (pp 193-194). Gardner, however, prefers to say that this second concept is unnecessary, and that it should be sufficient to say that there are specialised moral norms that are "partly constitutive of law as a genre" (p 194). Examples are the norms that law should be prospective (rather than retrospective in application), open, general, and with qualities such as these they constitute a distinctive ideal of legality, known as the rule of law.

But it's not just the internal morality of rules that determines compliance with the rule of law, but it is also the internal morality of the arrangements for upholding their purported application (pp 209-210). Gardner refers to arrangements identified by Raz: a robustly independent judiciary, affordable and easy access to the courts, effective judicial review of executive action, effective appeals, dispassionate professionalism among police, prosecutors, and other enforcement officials, strong respect for procedural propriety, and the giving of reasons for decisions. Gardner points out that it is a violation of the rule of law for a judge to declare a rule but not to apply it, or for a judge to deny there is a rule and to say a case is decided "on its particular facts" (p 210).

I should add that you might compare these requirements of the rule of law to those advocated by Tom Bingham in "The Rule of Law" (2010); he included the norm that the law must afford adequate protection of fundamental human rights, acknowledging in his Chapter 7 that this was not a principle which would be universally accepted as embraced within the rule of law, and he referred to the version of the rule of law put forward by Raz as being "close to what some economists have called a 'thin' definition of the rule of law". Bingham noted that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and later international instruments have linked the protection of human rights to the rule of law, as has the European Court of Human Rights (citing Engel v The Netherlands (No 1) (1976) 1 EHRR 647, 672, para 69, and Golder v United Kingdom (1975) 1 EHRR 524, 589, para 34).

I found Gardner's discussion of justice in Chapter 10 particularly helpful. He reminds us that justice is proportionality in allocation of goods and ills (p 242). Justice is not peculiar to legal systems and questions of justice arise whether or not there are rules (p 256). But in a legal system the law is only subject to justice at the point where the benefits and burdens come to be allocated. (I interpose: this does not mean only at the end of a case, as judges often have to make decisions during a trial – for example by permitting or preventing some forms of cross-examination – by applying the criterion of the interests of justice.) There are competing moral norms, such as humanity, that a legal system can give priority to, but a court ought to be just above all (pp 244, 259).

Well I don't want to spoil your enjoyment of "Law as a Leap of Faith" by going through it all and revealing its arguments. But in wondering how philosophers work you might ask how all these (what Gardner would call) little thoughts fit into their rightful little places. You may find yourself making a diagram, if like me you are the sort of person who is assisted by images (click on image for full diagram and key).

I keep not depriving you of enjoyment to save myself the task of setting it all out, and also to assist in the accumulation of Gardner's royalties. Dan Brown is safe in the popularity stakes, but "Law as a Leap of Faith" has an excitement of its own that repays any effort needed to adjust to the technical prose.