Law, Language, Crime, and Culture: The Value and Risks of Comparative Law
49 Crim. L. Bull. 438
45 Pages Posted: 10 Mar 2013 Last revised: 3 Nov 2015
Date Written: 2013
Words, language, culture, and literature are so important to us human beings that it should come as little surprise that they are part of our law. This article considers language and law in general with a focus on issues of criminal justice, both domestic and international. I examine how and why comparative law is valuable in a criminal procedure course, and generally for domestic and international criminal justice. My examination begins by looking back to our common roots in crime, punishment, and expiation, with a special focus on the role of torture and its impact on current criminal justice systems.
Comparative law also serves as a springboard from which to ponder law and philosophy in the context of a basic or advanced criminal procedure course. International criminal courts provide a useful example of the value and challenges of comparative law because they are actually experiments in mixing legal systems and procedures as they function in the arena of international law. Although wholesale or simplistic borrowing is wrong and often harmful, carefully comparing how disparate systems resolve similar problems is most helpful. To elucidate this, I use the examples of “verdict” and “to represent.” They look the same on paper, but manifest quite differently in practice in America and in Europe — prime examples of why comparative analysis can be so illuminating.
It should not be surprising that comparative analysis is crucial to courses or parts of courses in international or transnational criminal law, as functionally, those are mixed systems — requiring a mixture of international law and domestic law or of international law and that of two or more domestic legal systems. This is especially so in international law, which functions as a mixed jurisdiction essentially comprised of Romano-Germanic and Common Law elements and approaches. Those who understand and can work with both the Romano-Germanic and the Common Law systems will be more able to understand the nuances of international law, its methods, analytical style, and sources. This will help them succeed in practice, scholarship and teaching.
This article and the benefits of comparative analysis apply to the study of most subjects in any legal system. My points apply to practitioners, students, policy makers, judges, human rights activists, and many more professions, especially as the world shrinks. Comparative analysis of the sort I suggest herein provides a deeper understanding of the subject, in addition to some understanding of foreign systems. Law is at least partially a form of language; it arises from the culture and language of the various nations and peoples of the world. Comparative study is more than a leisure activity. It provides insight into law (even one’s own, in its deepest cultural sense) and a more transparent prism through which to understand law, culture, and language, including one’s own law, culture, and language, acting like a perfect prism through which we perceive not merely a white light (a country’s legal system), but all the colors that are essential parts (culture and language) of that white light. Revealing those colors — those essential parts — allows us to analyze and compare them and gain a far deeper understanding of a country’s legal system.
To be sure, law is more than just language, but its essence has many of the characteristics and fullness, including the cultural imprint, that a language has. Perhaps, too, there is a spiritual or cosmological element to law, language, and scholarship. I use the term "language" not only its usual sense of the words we use to speak and write, but also as a metaphor for law as language which includes all the cultural depth that imbues language with its soul or spirit.
Keywords: international law, culture, comparative law, criminal law, ethics, law and language, law and literature
JEL Classification: K10, K14, K33
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation