If you grew up in the U.S., that sentence was probably your first introduction to the idea of law and rights. Maybe another kid shouted it at you when you questioned their behavior. Maybe you said it yourself. Simply translated, it means “I have the right to do what I want whether you like it or not.”
What gives us that right?
Kids also like things to be fair, so even on the playground there are limits to the “free country” argument. Rules get made – don’t cut in line, don’t hit other kids – and enforced. Even first graders have a rudimentary legal system.
In the U.S., we take great pride in the idea that we are a nation of laws and not of “men.” And based on that principle, we assume that law ensures fairness. But while fairness may be a goal of legal philosophers and social reformers, in truth, law is often unfair. Take this wonderful quote from Anatole France:
The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.
The purpose of law is to set rules on how people interact with each other so that disputes can be resolved. The outcome doesn’t have to be fair; it only has to be accepted by all parties as within the rules.
Not that fairness doesn’t play a part in developing law. When outcomes get too far from what most people perceive as fair, law changes: Witness the anti-discrimination laws passed in the U.S. in the second half of the 20th Century and the current wave of legal decisions and statutes allowing same sex marriage.
Still, law is inherently conservative. The decisions of the courts are based on precedents, and those precedents are not overturned lightly. In the U.S., some of those precedents go back to English common law (or, in the case of property law in the southwest, to Spanish law).
We invest the legal system with a lot of mythology and pomp and circumstance, but in the end, it is only a set of rules. Rules can be changed.
While law is often seen as tedious and boring (not to mention full of ridiculous technicalities), the disputes that lead to lawsuits and crimes are often fraught with drama and emotional tension – perfect subjects for fiction. Unfortunately, a lot of fiction doesn’t get law right.
Sometimes this affects the plot. I was reading a mystery set in California the other day, and one of the characters said she had been able to keep a house she had owned with her late husband (she’d been convicted of killing him) because it had been put in her name for “business reasons.” I thought this was a clue, because California is a community property state and property bought during the marriage generally belongs to both parties regardless of the name on the title. But it wasn’t. The author just took a inaccurate shortcut to explain why this character owned the house.
Sometimes errors in law are just annoying. There’s a short story by a writer whose works I love (which is why I’m not telling you who the author is) in which the main character is convicted of a crime when in real life the dispute would have been a civil lawsuit. It wasn’t necessary to the plot – a huge monetary judgment against the character would have destroyed his life as effectively as a prison sentence – so it bugs me every time and keeps me from enjoying the story to the fullest.
And sometimes legal mistakes misrepresent the way the world works in the same way that inaccurate science in a science fiction story or factual errors in historical fiction do.
So this is the first of a series of blog posts on getting the legal stuff right in fiction. I practiced law for about 17 years and made my living reporting on law for lawyers for another 20, but figuring out how to explain law to fiction writers is a new challenge.
To do this right, I need to know what legal obstacles people have run into in their writing (or in their reading). What do you need to know about law to write what you want to write? Put your questions in the comments and I’ll collect them and address them in future posts.
I’m not going to cover the legal rights and responsibilities of authors. That’s another topic entirely. But I will try to give you enough information so that you can figure out how to create a legal system from scratch for your far-future space opera as well as how to get the rules right for a story set in the here-and-now.
I’ll start next week with an introduction to lawyers.