Legal system a confusing labyrinth

23:08, Dec 11 2012

If you ask an architect to name the greatest symbol of Roman civilisation, he might say it was the Coliseum.

If you ask an engineer, he might instead propose the aqueducts and roads that still criss-cross the European landmass.

As a lawyer, I would probably give you the Lex Duodecim Tabularum - the Law of the Twelve Tables - as the greatest legacy of the ancient Romans.

The Twelve Tables (so named because they were inscribed on 12 bronze tablets) represented the earliest attempt by the ancient Romans to organise and publish a system of law.

But while the Tables were the centrepiece of the Roman constitution, they were at first strongly opposed by Rome's leading men.

After all, it is much easier for the strong to rule the weak when the latter do not have an organised system of law to rely upon.


Agitation by the plebeians - the common people - for written and published laws only succeeded after they seceded from the city.

The "Secession of the Plebs" was like an extreme form of a strike - the commoners simply left the city leaving the aristocracy behind with nobody to rule over.

Relenting, the aristocrats agreed to commission a council to attempt to codify laws that would apply to all citizens.

While this was to be an auspicious moment in Western civilisation, some of the contents of the Tables do not seem overly civilised by today's standards.

For example, when the UK's Daily Mirror was found to have defamed comedian Frankie Boyle, the High Court in London ordered the newspaper to pay him £54,000 in damages. 

By contrast, Table IX of the Roman code provided that: "When anyone publicly abuses another in a loud voice, or writes a poem for the purpose of insulting him, or rendering him infamous, he shall be beaten with a rod until he dies."

Newspaper editors would probably think twice before trashing someone's reputation were that remedy still available today.

But the Twelve Tables did represent a great leap for the ideal of equal access to the law. For the first time, the law was public, not secret - the Tables were displayed prominently in the civic centre.

All Roman citizens were expected to be familiar with them and even memorise them.

For this reason the laws were written in a childish verse - which made it easier for illiterate plebeians to remember them.

Do Westerners still hold to that ideal in the modern era? Perhaps, in a literal sense.

Laws are still publicly promulgated and in recent years, have become readily available on the internet.

As a substantive matter, however, I am not sure.

Consider the modern Rome: the United States - a superpower republic with a Senate upon a Capitol Hill.

It's first income tax law, passed in 1913, was just 400 pages.

Today, the US income tax code is over 73,000 pages long.

American laws have become so long and complex that the civil liberties lawyer Harry Silvergate has calculated that the average American citizen unknowingly commits three serious crimes every day.

Is it any wonder that there are more than 1.2 million lawyers in the United States?

I am sure that we are not nearly as bad as that.

We are a much smaller country, after all, with a much simpler system of government.

Still, I have twice tried to run a word count on the Income Tax Act 2007.

Both times (and I am not joking here) my computer crashed.

The fact is that our legal system comprises hundreds of statutes and many, many thousands of pages of regulation.

It is impossible for anyone, including those who write the laws and adjudicate them, to have knowledge of the law that is both comprehensive and detailed.

Perhaps it is impossible to govern a modern society with simple, widely known rules.

In any event, with so many new laws proposed every day, it's not like the situation is going to change any time soon (just check out the "Bills" section on Parliament's website).

And maybe I ought not to bemoan that too loudly.

After all, my livelihood depends on the demand for navigation through the increasingly complex legal minefield.

* Liam Hehir is a lawyer at Palmerston North firm Fitzherbert Rowe.

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