What I am referring to, is when a jury rules that the accused is technically guilty, but shouldn't be punished for it anyway. In other words: the jury determines that the letter of the law conflicts with the spirit of it, and chooses to follow the spirit instead.

Can this be done in a civil case? My understanding is that if you go to court with someone over a contract, the case is not tried by a jury. But, can the law still be overridden in the interest of justice?

For instance, imagine a scenario where a A brings in his car for repairs. The mechanic B charges him twice as much as agreed for it, and when A complains he points to some fine print in the contract that A didn't notice when he signed it, which says his prices will be twice what is agreed on tuesdays between 3 and 5pm, and look at that: A brought in his car at 3:05!

So while B is technically correct, it is entirely plausible that a jury might look at this and say: hang on, that's clearly absurd, you can't go around charging people more because they didn't notice your cleverly worded loophole. Except, that since this is a civil case, there's no jury. So, is a judge allowed to say that?

You may disagree with my specific example, but hopefully you get the point: I'm asking whether it is possible for a court without a jury to rule against the technical interpretation of a law, if they determine that following the letter of it would in this single case by unjust, or contrary to the spirit.

  • the jury determines that the letter of the law conflicts with the spirit of it, and chooses to follow the spirit instead. No. Jury nullfication means that the jury gives itself the power to decide if laws apply or don't. If they chose to ignore the laws, they can chose to ignore "the spirit of the law" as well (in the case that they even know what "the spirit of the law" is) and certainly more often than not it is just a matter of sympathies and prejudices.
    – SJuan76
    Mar 20 '18 at 11:32

Your question isn't quite as simple as it sounds; some civil cases are tried before juries, and though a judge can give directions to a jury to give a particular verdict, they are not always required to obey; there are eighteenth-century English cases on the point that established that principle for most related jurisdictions.

But your last sentence does have a simple answer: No. A judge usually takes an oath on assuming office, to administer the law without fear or favour. That means he will investigate the relevant law (with the assistance of the parties' lawyers), and enforce what it says. "This law would be unfair to the customer, so I will ignore it" would be just as bad as "The mechanic threatened to hit me with a wrench, so I find for him".

Of course, most jurisdictions do have overriding principles of fairness; it may be that this contract term was not shown to the customer, so is not enforceable, or it may be that it is contrary to public policy to be uncertain what repairs will cost. But unless there is an explicit legal reason, the judge will have to find for the mechanic. It would be neither improper nor unusual for the judgment to include the sentence "This result is clearly unfair to the customer, and I urge the legislature to look at closing the loophole; nevertheless, the law is clear, and I find the customer must pay the increased price."

  • But it is fair to say that judges sometimes use pretty convoluted logic to ensure that the law says something that is fair. This could be seen as analogous to jury nullification. Mar 20 '18 at 14:08
  • There is also the common law tradition that judges can define what the law is (for example, by adding a new principle). However, that almost never happens - judges now-a-days are much keener to leave that to the legislature. Mar 20 '18 at 14:10
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    @Martin: Judges can define the law if there is nothing that covers the point already. The volume of existing case law is probably why that almost never happens. Mar 20 '18 at 16:59
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    @MartinBonner Questions of first impression are more common than you would expect. I encounter at least two or three of them a year on average in my three lawyer law office with a busy civil trial practice in Colorado. I had one pending yesterday in a contempt of court matter, for example. They are especially common in smaller, younger states that don't have a large population (e.g. Wyoming) or had a large population only recently (e.g. Nevada), or in new areas of practice (e.g. marijuana law).
    – ohwilleke
    Mar 21 '18 at 14:31
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    @ohwilleke "Questions of first impression" - I take it that this is a legal term meaning something like "questions where there is no precedent, so the judge gets to decide". I am surprised, because I would have expected appeal court judgements in England prior to the declaration of Independence to be good law in the US (except Louisiana ofc). Maybe that only applied to the original 13 states (or maybe there just aren't that many such judgements - England was small then). Mar 21 '18 at 14:39

I'm asking whether it is possible for a court without a jury to rule against the technical interpretation of a law, if they determine that following the letter of it would in this single case by unjust, or contrary to the spirit.

Judges are forbidden from deviating from the law properly interpreted although they have considerable freedom to interpret a law to mean what the legislative intent of the law reflects, rather than a crabbed reading of dictionary definitions of the words used in it. But, judges are almost never (directly) punished for reaching a wrong conclusion in a case unless their opinion is blatantly defiant.

But, it is possible and happens all the time. I'd venture that it happens in maybe 10%-20% of all cases that go to trial.

Sometimes, a judge makes implausible findings of fact to get a desired outcome, or simply ignores evidence that was offered at trial, or makes an inference not really supported by any of the evidence offered at trial.

Sometimes, a judge simply ignores and does not discuss a legal issue raised by a party (and in many contexts that decision is not subject to appeal, such as denying a motion for summary judgment or a temporary restraining order).

Sometimes a judge interprets the relevant law in a strained or hyper-technical manner (e.g., denying relief because the law does not expressly state that a violation of the statute gives rise to a civil action), or holding that a merely losing legal argument is actually frivolous.

Sometimes a judge invokes a general legal principle that may or may not be relevant to this kind of case to modify the naive reading of the law.

Sometimes a judge simply enters a verdict with no real substantive explanation whatsoever, despite the fact that a judge is supposed to write an opinion making the findings of fact and reaching the conclusions of law necessary to support the verdict.

In practice, a smart judge can give whatever verdict the judge wants in perhaps 70%-80% of contested cases, if the judge is determined and creative enough, although a minority of contested cases and most uncontested cases leave the judge no legitimate choice but to rule in a particular manner.

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    I also find it quite annoying how frequently judges issue judgments without stating the findings of facts and law necessary to reach their judgment. Please see my follow-up question to your answer here.
    – feetwet
    Mar 21 '18 at 17:43
  • I suspect this depends on both jurisdiction and the level of court; I have never seen a English High Court judge do this (in maybe 10000 cases), though magistrates sometimes do. And "are almost never punished" depends on your definition. To prevent political pressure, HCJ cannot be fired except through Act of Parliament, and receive an automatic knighthood on appointment and no further honours. But somehow the awkward ones don't get promoted to the Appeal Court or Supreme Court... Mar 21 '18 at 21:14
  • @TimLymington The lower down the hierarchy you go, the more often you see it. I agree that it isn't a good strategy if you are unhappy in the Briar Patch where you are already ensconced and want a promotion within the judicial branch. Also, there may be some sort of opinion along the lines of "Bob sued Jones for breach of contract for delivering defective dishwashers. A trial to the court was held and argument of the parties was considered. Bob's case was not supported at trial. Judgment entered for Jones who shall submit a Bill of Costs.", but it may just fail to really justify the ruling.
    – ohwilleke
    Mar 22 '18 at 0:13

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