The judges' guide to modern life

Those everyday phrases that the rest of us take for granted seem to completely fox Their Honours. But help is at hand.
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The language of the law is very different from the plain speech in common use outside the courtroom. For more than 100 years Stroud's Judicial Dictionary of Words and Phrases has been helping judges to bridge this gap - sometimes with amusing results.

The language of the law is very different from the plain speech in common use outside the courtroom. For more than 100 years Stroud's Judicial Dictionary of Words and Phrases has been helping judges to bridge this gap - sometimes with amusing results.

For example, in last month's edition, Stroud's found it necessary to inform judges that a main road is "a medium of communication between towns." Other definitions include a loud speaker, which judges are told is an "apparatus electrically driven for the purpose of reproducing sound over a wide area." And although under current law a police truncheon is an offensive weapon, 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 many judges' ignorance of everyday phrases. High Court judge, Sir Jeremiah LeRoy Harman, made a string of famous boobs, including the occasion when he asked: "Who is Gazza?", while Sir Oliver Popplewell amazed the High Court by asking: "What is Linford Christie's lunchbox?".

It will be a long time before these names and phrases are given any legal meaning. It has taken over 400 years for the first mention to appear of the humble potato, introduced into the UK by Sir Walter Raleigh in the 16th century. But while the dictionary is now clear enough about what a potato is - "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."

In criminal courts it is helpful for judges to know that a common prostitute is a woman who "offers herself commonly for lewdness" but "the performance of a single act of lewdness with a man did not make her common prostitute."

Home Secretary Jack Straw, a trained barrister, might wish to take advantage of Stroud's neat definition of Britishness, A British subject, it says, is someone of "British descent, which includes a naturalised British subject." Elsewhere, the dictionary is less helpful. It usefully reveals that "wives, for the purposes of the Immigration Act 1971, cannot be construed as 'husbands'."

But in some ways the dictionary remains way ahead of its time. Britain's train operators still seem to need reminding that a "railway passenger service" does not fall within the meaning of the Railways Act 1993 if it is "unlikely to benefit the travelling public."