Judges get help with language of everyday life

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The Independent Online

Judges are being offered help on the legal meaning of common words and phrases that can trip them up in court.

Judges are being offered help on the legal meaning of common words and phrases that can trip them up in court.

In the latest edition of the standard legal dictionary for judges and barristers, modern definitions are provided for a loudspeaker, a police truncheon and a main road.

Stroud's Judicial Dictionary of Words and Phrases defines a loudspeaker as an "apparatus electrically driven for the purpose of reproducing sound over a wide area".

And for judges who need to be told, a main road is a "medium of communication between two towns". A police truncheon is defined as an offensive weapon, although wearing one at a fancy dress party is a "reasonable excuse for having it in a public area".

Courts down the years have been reduced to mirth by judges' blissful ignorance of people, events and even inanimate objects.

The High Court judge Sir Jeremiah LeRoy Harman made a string of famous remarks including asking: "Who is Gazza?" Justice Oliver Popplewell amazed the High Court by asking: "What is Linford Christie's lunchbox?"

The judicial dictionary has a long way to go before these terms are given any legal meaning. It has taken more than 400 years for the first mention of the humble potato, introduced into England by Sir Walter Raleigh in the 16th century. Stroud's publishers, Sweet and Maxwell, say: "No longer will judges and barristers need to scratch their heads over the meaning of one of the nation's most popular vegetables."

While the dictionary is clear about what is a potato, "any tuber or true seed of Solanum tuberosum..." the term "beloved wife" is fraught with ambiguity. The dictionary states: "A bequest by a husband to his 'beloved wife' of all the testator's property, applies exclusively to the individual who answers the description at the date of the will and is not to be extended to an aftertaken wife."

Judges might also like to know that a common prostitute is a woman who "offers herself commonly for lewdness" but that "the performance of a single act of lewdness with a man did not make her a common prostitute".

The dictionary may be useful outside the courtroom, too. The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, a trained barrister, might wish to take advantage of its neat definition of Britishness. A British subject, says the dictionary, is someone of "British descent which includes a naturalised British subject".

In some ways the dictionary is ahead of its time - a "railway passenger service" does not fall within the meaning of the Railways Act 1993 if it is "unlikely to benefit the travelling public".