Duhaime's Law Dictionary


Law French Definition:

The original language of the English courts after the Norman conquest.

Related Terms: Dehors

After the Norman Conquest of 1066, the official language of the Royal Court, and of the law courts and of the law books which were produced within that justice system ,were in French. But the French was soon adapted to English so it became a unique language of half of one, half the other, a veritable dialect.

Still the English courts with the obstinacy with which they still wear odd-looking white-hair wigs in Court, took centuries to rid themselves of Law French, exacerbating access to justice.

Latin was, for a time, the language of choice but Law French had its moment; a matter of several centuries to be exact. So many historic legal treatises were written in Law French and later translated into English. For example, William Noy (1577-1634) wrote Noy's Maxims in Law French, published in 1641.

1362 statute re Law FrenchBaker writes of the general demise of French in England:

"After the wars with France under Edward III (reigned 1327-1377)... French ceased to be taught in schools and its oral use became a courtly anachronism. As early as 1362, Parliament attempted to restrict the use of French in the law courts as being trop desconue (not universally understood) - ironically, the statute itself was in French.

"Its principal effect on the law, no doubt unintended, was to ensure the survival of Latin....

"Fortescue, who practised at the bar in the time of Henry VI (reigned 1422-1461), wrote that French had been retained for oral pleading and for reporting...."

When, finally, the lawyers were ordered to publish their law reports in the English language, and no longer in Law French, the English law reporters were not pleased. Edward Bulstrode noted, circa 1625, in the preface of Part II of his reports that, and referring to himself in the third person:

"... he had many years since perfected the work in French in which language he had desired might have seen the light being most proper for it, and most convenient for the professors of the law."

William Style, in the preface of his law report styled Modern Reports (1658), was even more outspoken:

"I have made these reports speak English, not that I believe they will be thereby more generally useful, for I have been always and yet am of opinion, that that part of the common law which is in English hath only occasioned the making of unquiet spirits contentiously knowing, and more apt to offend others than to defend themselves; but I have done it in obedience to authority, and to stop the mouths of such of this English age, who, though they be confessedly different in their minds and judgment, as the builders of Babel were in their language, yet do think it vain, if not impious, to speak or understand more than their own mother tongue."

Many terms developed within Law French have survived and are still used in contemporary legal language:

... and many more, most of which we have tried to capture and define in Duhaime's Law French Dictionary.

REFERENCES:

  • Baker, J. H., Manual of Law French (Hants, England: Scolar Press, 1990)

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