Our laws are unfortunately not widely known, they are the closely guarded secret of the small group of nobles who govern us. We like to believe that these old laws are scrupulously adhered to, but it remains a vexing thing to be governed by laws one does not know. I am not thinking here of various questions of interpretation and the disadvantages that stem from only a few individuals and not the population as a whole being involved in their interpretation. These disadvantages may in any case be overstated. The laws a(er all are so old, centuries have worked on their interpretation, even their interpretation has in a sense become codi)ed, and while there is surely room still for interpretation, it will be quite limited. Moreover, the nobility has no reason to bend the law against us, if only because the laws were in their favour from the very beginning, the nobility being outside the law, and that is why the laws seem to have been given exclusively into their hands. There is wisdom in this disposition – who could question the wisdom of the old laws? – but it remains vexing for the rest of us. Presumably that is not to be avoided…
Franz Kafka. The Problem of Our Laws’ – ‘Zur Frage der Gesetze’ – translated by Michael Hofmann. Link
A sharp pen from Stephen Sedley, a former appeal court judge, in the LRB.
Absurdly and cruelly, until the 1961 Suicide Act was passed it was a crime to kill yourself. While those who succeeded were beyond the law’s reach, those who tried and failed could be sent to jail. In the 1920s the home secretary had to release a Middlesbrough woman with fourteen children who had been given three months in prison for trying to kill herself. There is a Pythonesque sketch waiting to be written about a judge passing a sentence of imprisonment for attempted suicide: ‘Let this be a lesson to you and to any others who may be thinking of killing themselves.’ In fact, by the mid 19th century the law had got itself into such a tangle that a person injured in a failed attempt at suicide could be indicted for wounding with intent to kill, an offence for which Parliament had thoughtfully provided the death penalty.
But the repeated resort by doctrinal opponents of assisted dying to the need for safeguarding tends to be directed not to resolving any difficulties but to amplifying and complicating them to the point of obstruction – the kind of argument which, as Gore Vidal once put it, gives intellectual dishonesty a bad name.