Thomas More and the Law

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Today is the feast day of Saint Thomas More the patron saint of lawyers.  More was born in London in 1478.  He served as a statesman and Lord High Chancellor of England under King Henry VIII.

He was beheaded by the King for refusing to accept England’s break with the Catholic Church during the Reformation.

More was one of the leading intellectuals of his time.  His most famous literary work was Utopia which described a fictional island where the people lived idyllic lives.

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In Utopia More shares his thoughts on lawyers, judges, and laws.

Lawyers

Ironically the patron saint of lawyers seemed to have a low opinion of the profession.  So much so that lawyers did not even exist in Utopia.

They have no lawyers among them, for they consider them as a sort of people whose profession it is to disguise matters and to wrest the laws, and, therefore, they think it is much better that every man should plead his own cause.

Judges

Nevertheless, More held judges in high regard.

[The people of Utopia] trust it to the judge, as in other places the client trusts it to a counsellor; by this means they both cut off many delays and find out truth more certainly; for after the parties have laid open the merits of the cause, without those artifices which lawyers are apt to suggest, the judge examines the whole matter, and supports the simplicity of such well-meaning persons, whom otherwise crafty men would be sure to run down.

Any lawyer reading this will wonder how much time More actually spent in the courts of London.  We may also wonder if More’s sentiments changed after being condemned to death by England’s judges.

Law

Finally, More tells us that in Utopia the laws are simple, short and easy enough for any man to comprehend.

All laws are promulgated for this end, that every man may know his duty; and, therefore, the plainest and most obvious sense of the words is that which ought to be put upon them, since a more refined exposition cannot be easily comprehended, and would only serve to make the laws become useless to the greater part of mankind, and especially to those who need most the direction of them; for it is all one not to make a law at all or to couch it in such terms that, without a quick apprehension and much study, a man cannot find out the true meaning of it, since the generality of mankind are both so dull, and so much employed in their several trades, that they have neither the leisure nor the capacity requisite for such an inquiry.

The full text of Utopia is available at www.gutenberg.org.

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