Oblique intent

Why the name? Well criminal law afficionados will recognise the phrase 'oblique intent' as referring to a problem of mens rea:can a person who intends to do x (such as setting fire to a building to scare the occupants) also be said to have an intention to kill if one of the occupants dies? This is a problem that has consumed an inordinate amount of time in the appeal courts and in the legal journals, and can be taken to represent a certain kind of approach to legal theory. My approach is intended to be more oblique to this mainstream approach, and thus to raise different kinds of questions and issues. Hence the name.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

On the Ruins of Time

For those interested in the oblique, it is worth looking at Andrew Amos' On the Ruins of Time as Examplified in Sir Matthew Hale's History of the Pleas of the Crown (1856). The title of the book gives almost no clue to the modern reader as to its contents, but it is an erudite and critical history of the criminal law that would scarcely be out of place in more modern reading lists.

Amos himself is perhaps slightly better known: first Professor of English Law at University College, London (1828-34), a member of Criminal Law Commission between 1834 and 1843 to investigate the codification of the criminal law, and later Downing Professor of the Laws of England in the University of Cambridge from 1848 until his death in 1860. (There is an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography and also one in wikipedia). This kind of background would suggest someone who was a member of the legal establishment - well connected and scholarly - and this background is reflected in some of his other writings, such as a treatise on the law of fixtures and a work on the English constitution in the reign of Charles II.
But what of the Ruins of Time? What makes it so unusual? On the face of it, the book is an argument in support of the codification of the criminal law - and it is hardly surprising that Amos, as a former (and disappointed) Law Commissioner, should be advocating this. What is surprising is the form that this takes - and perhaps it is the oblique nature of his approach that appeals. The first thing is the odd title. The 'Ruins of Time' apparently refers to a poem of the same name by Edmund Spenser (of the Faerie Queene), in which a nymph surveys the ruins, the fall from grace, of the city of (London) and moralises on the transitory nature of human achievements. Here there is no nymph, but the ruins being surveyed are those of Hale's great work.
Why Hale? Here Amos' view is that, while Hale's work is the great achievement in the area of English criminal law, the passage of time has diminished this utility. Interestingly he refers to Hale as a 'Pope of Criminal Law', someone who might by the authority of his position spare others the difficulties of thinking for themselves or resolving contradictory opinions. And this points to another of the unusual features of the book, which is Amos' biting sarcasm, and his willingness to use wit and satire in his criticism of the criminal law - though barely masking his own disappointment and frustration.
The rest of the book is perhaps more conventional in structure - indeed it follows the structure of Hale's work. But it is rather more than just an argument for codification, as Amos engages in immensely learned discussion of the history and practice of different areas of the law.
It is a shame that a book such as this has been so neglected - though perhaps not surprising given the obscurity of the title - and it is too easy to put it down as the cri de coeur of a disappointed law commissioner. The book itself is now easily accessible on Google books, and is worth spending a little time with it.
[One last aside. Amos' son, Sheldon, followed in his father's footsteps, becoming a lawyer and professor of jurisprudence at University College, London - and I shall write about him in another later post]

1 comment:

  1. Dear sir, where can I find the book "Ruins of time"?