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The term legal technicality is a casual or colloquial phrase referring to a technical aspect of law. The phrase is not a term of art in the law; it has no exact meaning, nor does it have a legal definition. It implies that strict adherence to the letter of the law has prevented the spirit of the law from being enforced. However, as a vague term, the definition of a technicality varies from person to person, and often is simply used to denote any portion of the law which interferes with the outcome desired by the user of the term.
Some legal technicalities govern legal procedure, enable or restrict access to courts, and/or enable or limit the discretion of a court in handing down judgment. These are aspects of procedural law. Other legal technicalities deal with aspects of substantive law, that is, aspects of the law which articulate specific criteria that a court uses to assess a party's compliance with or violation of, for example, one or more criminal laws or civil laws.
- An example: In the case of U.S. v. Shipp, 214 US 386 (1909), the U.S. Supreme Court quoted a local newspaper as follows:
- “In the News, published the evening of March 19, there was an editorial reviewing the local proceedings, which concluded: 'All of this delay is aggravating to the community. The people of Chattanooga believe that Johnson is guilty, and that he ought to suffer the penalty of the law as speedily as possible. If by legal technicality the case is prolonged and the culprit finally escapes, there will be no use to plead with a mob here if another such crime is committed. Such delays are largely responsible for mob violence all over the country.'”(U.S. v. SHIPP, 1909) The newspaper plainly was using the phrase "legal technicality" to refer to technical aspects of the law which the newspaper's editorial staff saw as an obstacle to its preferred outcome.
- In the U.S., for example, the Supreme Court has used the informal phrase "legal technicality" in its decisions 13 times in the last century. In every case the use of the words refers to merely "technicalities of the law". The three most recent uses are illustrative:
- (1) “The function of counsel as a guide through complex legal technicalities long has been recognized by this Court.” (U.S. v. Ash, 1973)
- (2) ”Furthermore, during the federal habeas corpus hearing Davis showed his awareness of legal technicalities.”(used in a footnote, Davis v. North Carolina, 1966)
- (3) ”If recovery were denied in this case, the railroads, by the simple expedient of doing each other's work, could tie their employees up in legal technicalities..." (Shenker v. Baltimore and Ohio R.Co., 1963)