Category Archives: William Pickford

The Common Law Consists of About Half A Dozen Obvious Propositions, But Unfortunately …

Judge Dowdall? William Pickford? Lord Sterndale? Anonymous? Apocryphal?

commonlaw01Dear Quote Investigator: Some lawyers take pride in their use of rigorous logical and legal reasoning. I once heard a hilarious remark about the body of law accumulated over the centuries. I do not remember the exact wording, but it was something like this:

The entire body of law and legal precedents may be derived from six obvious propositions; unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

Have you heard this saying before? Could you explore it?

Quote Investigator: In 1931 a judge named Dowdall presented a paper titled “The Psychological Origins of Law” at the Centenary Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. He included a saying about the common law that matched your description. But he enclosed the remark in quotation marks to indicate that the words were not his. Boldface has been added to the passages below: 1

Man’s rational nature looks to find some presiding genius or logical principle behind, and giving consistency to, these decisions—a god of justice, a law of nature, etc. But such is not easily found even in these days, and the discovery is fragmentary. ‘The English common law consists of half a dozen obvious propositions, but unfortunately no one knows what they are.’

In 1932 Judge Dowdall wrote a letter to The Times of London and stated that he heard the saying from William Pickford who became Lord Sterndale, a British judge appointed to the High Court. In the following excerpt the phrase “taken silk” referred to a barrister becoming a Senior counsel: 2

Lord Sterndale once said, “The common law consists of about half a dozen obvious propositions, but unfortunately nobody knows what they are.” He was reading a case I had looked up for him, and I did not know whether he was speaking to himself or enlightening a junior barrister in the mysteries of the law, and as his clerk immediately called him into Court the matter dropped. He was a leader at the time, and I think it was not long after he had taken silk. The observation is so witty and true that, unless it is already familiar, it deserves record; but as the number of those who knew, Lord Sterndale diminishes it would be interesting if any of your readers ever heard him make a similar observation.

Here are two more citations and the conclusion.

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Notes:

  1. 1932, British Association for the Advancement of Science: Report of the Centenary Meeting, (Held in London on September 23 through 30, 1931), Sectional Transactions – H – Anthropology, (Paper presented Saturday, September 26, 1931), “The Psychological Origins of Law” by His Honour Judge Dowdall, Start Page 448, Quote Page 449, Published at the Office of the British Association, London. (Biodiversity Heritage Library at biodiversitylibrary.org) link
  2. 1932 January 26, The Times (UK), Points from Letters: Lord Sterndale on Common Law, [Letter from Judge Dowdall], Page 8, Column 6, London, England. (The Times Digital Archive Cengage)