Commas as aids of interpretation (and lives!)

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A lawyer’s task is extremely challenging; he has to convince someone (the Judge!) who is trained and hard-wired not to believe anything at face value (rightly so!) and taking everything with a pinch of salt. It is indeed a challenge. A lawyer overcomes this with his learning and his words. A practicing lawyer’s language, therefore, is his greatest stock in trade. Young lawyers should work and invest in their verbal as well as writing abilities.The ability to articulate even the most complex of issues clearly and putting them together simply, in the form of an understandable narrative, is extremely important for a lawyer.

Language and regard to rules of the language are equally important for the legislator and the judge.  Right language can save lives, commas can save lives. “Hey, let’s eat, Grandma” can easily degenerate into “Hey, let’s eat grandma”. Right language can, therefore, save lives!

Also, a prohibition like “ROKO, MAT JAANE DO” can easily be turned into the more positive “ROKO MAT, JAANE DO”

Language, therefore, has to be used with precision. Lawyers or Judges cannot afford to be reckless with language.

“Eats shoots and leaves”, a description of a Panda bear, can easily turn into a description of a cow boy from the wild west with indiscriminate use of commas, to fashion it like : “Eats, shoots, and leaves” and can lead to serious legal consequences if we are still referring to the Panda bear.

Tragically, Punctuation has received a dismissive treatment from the Courts insofar as its importance as a tool of interpretation is concerned.  The original reason for disregard of punctuation as an aid to interpretation was understandable, since legislators used to vote for the bills on the basis of what they had heard read out aloud by the legislator presenting the bill; however, there is no reason for eschewing these rules while interpreting laws now, when the legislators signify their assent to a written bill and despite all evidence to the contrary, we cannot assume that the legislators are blissfully unaware of the basic rules of grammar.

Punctuation is super integral to the sense of the written word. Punctuation, apart from imperilling lives (and entailing false prosecutions of innocent pandas), can also cause huge economic loss as this US case would tell us. US Tariff Act of 1872 contained an exemption from tariff for – semi tropical and tropical fruit plans, however, the clause was inartistically drafted and read something like : “fruit, plants tropical and semitropical”; the misplaced comma after fruit led to all the fruits also being exempted and this interpretation was upheld by the Courts. The legislature was, however, quick to act and corrected this anomaly and fruits, once again, were taken outside the tariff exemption and revenue rightfully restored. However, this small comma did cause the US treasury a loss of about $1 million, a princely amount in those days.

Since we are talking commas, another remarkable one is the oxford comma, or a serial comma – that is, the comma after the penultimate item in a series and just before the conjunction (a, b, and c). Authorities on English usage overwhelmingly recommend using the serial comma to prevent ambiguities. An example from Scalia’s book on reading law is interesting : Let us say that a testator bequeaths the residue of his enormous estate to “Bob, Sally, George and Jillian” In view of the absence of the serial comma, should we understand the statute to say that the devisees take 1/4th each or the last two take equal parts of a 1/3rd share? If Bob and Sally turn greedy and have also read the right books on grammar, they may take the plea. However, in such a case, attaching too much importance to the absence of a serial comma after George may defeat the intention of the testator and the Court may be right in disregarding its absence.

An aspiring lawyer, judge or a legislator should do well to understand the basics of these rules in order to write better. And yes, a very happy holi!

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