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Nullem Crimen Sine Lege

There was a time when the Law Society of Ireland discharged all its functions in the corner of a car park.

The car park is still there (in the Four Courts), but the Law Society of Ireland has moved, to the former Blue Coat school in Blackhall Place (and changed its name). Now, in addition to having its own car park, it has the cachet of looking as though the HQ building (from the 18th century) reflects its history, which it does not.

That’s harmless stuff.

But what about the title to this post? “Nullem crimen sine lege” means “no crime without a law”, which in turn means, in the words of Article 7 of the European Convention on Human Rights,

No one shall be held guilty of any criminal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a criminal offence under national or international law at the time when it was committed

The words of Article 7 are superior, but many lawyers prefer the latin expression, for much the same reasons the Law Society felt the need of a stately home: it projects or suggests the endorsement of history.

As always, these endorsements are of questionable value, in two senses; the endorsement of history may not be an endorsement and the historical costume may look odd on the modern figure.

Why should we care if an expression is in latin? Do we actually want the endorsement of ancient Rome? Consider the first Punic war. The Romans trumpeted their fidelity to their word; they used it to extend their influence through Italy by means of treaties. The Carthaginians occupied most of Sicily. The rest was ruled by a dictator (Hiero) and a small group of crooks that might well have suggested the model of the later Mafia.

The Mafia ran into trouble with the dictator and, finding the Carthaginians lacking in support, invited the Romans to help them. The Romans did, for the purpose of challenging the Carthaginians. Twenty three years of war followed, consequent on the breach by the Romans of their “core value” of adherence to their word. Rome had agreed a treaty of friendship with Carthage, but that counted for nothing when the possibility of taking Sicily was in the offing.