For the Want of a Nail…
An old poem and the law
At school, we were taught a poem where a loose nail in a horse-shoe resulted in losing a kingdom. There is also a story of our ex-finance minister arguing in the Supreme Court over the meaning of a comma, or the lack thereof, in the interpretation of a sentence. All this came woefully true in a case in a village in Ohio, USA.
The village posted a notice to deter parking. It stated that it was illegal to park “any motor vehicle camper, trailer, farm implement and/or non-motorized vehicle” on a street for more than 24 hours. In spite of the warning, Andrea Cammelleri parked her car for a longer time. She was charged.
Now you be the judge. Was she convicted fairly or not?
Cammelleri defended herself saying that the warning, referred to ‘any motor vehicle camper’; what she had parked there was an ordinary motor car. It was not a camper and the notice referred to no more than a camper.
‘No’, said the judge, in convicting her. Any one, he said, reading the sign would realise that the sign was aimed at all motor vehicles, including motor cars. Cammelleri further argued that if cars were to be included, the sign should have read “...motor vehicle, camper, trailer… ”. To her understanding of plain English, the all-important missing comma should let her go scot-free.
Cammelleri argued that the ordinance did not apply because the language prohibits a motor vehicle camper from being parked on the street for an extended period of time.
In response, the trial court held that when reading the ordinance in context, it unambiguously applied to motor vehicles and anybody reading [the ordinance] would understand that it is just missing a comma. This is what the court documents state.
Just a comma?
Losing her argument, she appealed. No one likes to lose, especially over a comma.
You be the judge. Would you allow her appeal or dismiss it as a waste of the court’s time?
It was now the turn of the village to make another mistake. A vital one. It argued that the missing comma was a ‘typo’, a typographical error. Admitting a mistake in court, especially in a case like this, is fatal. It concurred with what the appellant had been saying all along.
The Ohio Appeals Court had, maybe, a fairer knowledge of the language, along with the law. It ruled in Andrea Cammelleri’s favour. Grammar counts, the Court said. We quote: “By utilising rules of grammar and employing the common meaning of terms, ‘motor vehicle camper’ has a clear definition that does not produce an absurd result,” (Judge) Hendrickson wrote in his ruling. “If the village desires a different reading, it should amend the ordinance and insert a comma between the phrase ‘motor vehicle’ and the word ‘camper’.”
Two things stand out. The first is to question the trial judge’s decision. It may seem trivial but one must remember that judges in America are elected and need to be re-elected. They may have a more compassionate view in such matters; one against the many. Salus populi est suprema lex. The highest law is that which is for the common good.
Another point to discuss is the drafting of the laws. As Nani Palkhivala said, in one of his annual speeches on the Union Budget, we Indians are quick to make laws. If there is a problem, we bring out a statute. He was referring to the Emergency when we made more laws and rules than at any other time. One every 18 minutes. Volkswagen made a car in the same time in all their plants!
Drafting of laws and the language used is essentially a serious job. Too serious to be left to just our babus.
(Bapoo Malcolm is a practising lawyer in Mumbai. Please email your comments to [email protected]
7 years ago
There was a case in Calcutta, during the British Raj, of a arrest warrant being issued to a Indian which stated that should he ever land in Calcutta he would be arrested. This gentleman came to the city by train and was promptly arrested! In his defence he maintained that the warrant stated that he should be arrested if he landed in Calcutta whereas he not landed but merely alighted (from the train)!He was set free by the local courts! Language and grammar do matter in a court of law!
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