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Legal technicality

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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. In public perception, it typically refers to "procedural rules that can dictate the outcome of a case without having anything to do with the merits of that case."[1] However, as a vague term, the definition of a technicality varies from person to person, and it is often simply used to denote any portion of the law that interferes with the outcome desired by the user of the term.[2]

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 that 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.[3] In some cases, people may regard legal protections such as the exclusionary rule as legal technicalities.[4]

In the introduction to A Dictionary of Human Rights, David Robertson states (emphasis in original):

"One cannot dismiss legal technicalities and cut through legal language entirely, because rights basically are legal technicalities. What cannot be expressed with some clarity in a legal document will not be preserved and protected."[5]

In 1928, William W. Brewton wrote that the law is inevitably technical because a relatively small number of laws have to account for a much larger number of possible situations. Since the rules and principles of law are expected to apply to many different cases, they cannot always account for the exact circumstances, which can result in failures of justice in individual cases even when the greatest possible overall justice is being achieved. He said that people mistakenly criticize the technicalities, which are both "necessary and inevitable", when they should focus instead on preventing the original causes of litigation and crime.[6]

Brewton wrote that the rules of procedure are complex because there is no simplified approach that would be sufficient. Furthermore, allowing the rules to be broken (such as abrogating a constitutional right) to better fit a single case would mean that the same rules could be broken in other cases:

Granting that adherence to rules laid down for trials results in occasional insults to common sense, it yet remains that all trials would be absurdities if courts were to...attempt perfectly to suit the details of each case by hazarding a procedure known to guarantee justice in the most cases. We are to admit, then, that courts are not the victims either of a lack of common sense or of a smug judicial temperament when, to preserve order and permanent arrangement in the law, they hand down decisions which appear absurd upon their face. For if one will take the trouble to uncover everything entering into such decisions, usually it will be found that good and important reasons underlie them...It is not the reasonable province of courts to overturn the science of jurisprudence in order that the reasons for their operations may appear as self-evident as those of an ordinary sum in arithmetic, and in order that the reports of their decisions may read like a newspaper story.[6]

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  1. ^ Ira Mickenberg (21 February 1989). "What Burden of Proof in Fourth Amendment-Based Civil Rights Suits?". Retrieved 21 May 2023.
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ 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.[citation needed] 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)
  4. ^ Tyler, Tom R.; Boeckmann, Robert J. (1997). "Three Strikes and You Are Out, but Why? The Psychology of Public Support for Punishing Rule Breakers". Law & Society Review. 31 (2): 237. doi:10.2307/3053926. ISSN 0023-9216. JSTOR 3053926.
  5. ^ David Robertson (25 November 2004). A Dictionary of Human Rights. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-136-95872-4.
  6. ^ a b Brewton, William W. (November 1928). "Justice by Technicality". The Philosophical Review. 37 (6): 587–599. doi:10.2307/2180185. ISSN 0031-8108. JSTOR 2180185.