Armory v Delamirie and the Case for Critical Thinking in Law School
I’ve only been in law school for a short time, but I’m already concerned with the direction that my education is taking. It is possible that this is because I’m still a first year, and that the opportunities for different types of learning will open up in future years. That being said, I have some issues with what I have been learning. Some may say I’m too cynical, some may say that I’m ungrateful for the incredible chance I’ve been given to better myself and further my education. They may be right. That does not change my fundamental feelings of alienation, frustration, and futility, and my desire for an education which encompasses all outlooks on our legal system.
The very first case that my class and I read was called Armory v Delamirie. For anyone unfamiliar, this is a short, simple case, from back in the late 18th century. In this case a poor young chimney sweep had brought a broach of sorts to a wealthy jeweler, notorious for underhanded dealings, to obtain an evaluation. Upon hearing the worth of the item, the boy demanded it back, and was presented the empty holder, with the jewel removed.
At trial, the judge awarded the young boy the highest award he could. This would seem to be an unremarkable choice for a first case to show to fresh law students, indeed it has a number of useful features for anyone new to the field. It is a case which is easy to understand. It can teach us about important principles of law, such as stare decisis and finders law. It can help us understand the overarching structure of the system in which we are entering.
What this case will not teach law students however, is how to think critically about the system in which we are about to be immersed. There can be no question in this case that justice was done. No question of whether or not the judge erred. The young innocent boy was given back the item which all would agree was rightfully his, and the greedy jeweler was made to suffer for his immoral transgressions.
This is a perfect example of the system working how we all would like to imagine that it does. This is not a system with which I am familiar. A system in which an impoverished child may upset the hierarchy of power and punish a wealthy businessman who has transgressed against him is wonderful, but I would assert that excluding the exception of Armorie v Delamirie, this is not a true evaluation of our current justice system or how it interacts with our society.
How many cases would it be possible to find in which the situation was reversed? I suspect that most property cases are that of someone with a lot of property protecting it against someone with less. The court system works to protect private property, backed up by the coercive force of police, prison sentences, and hefty fines. The goal of protecting private property is one that is inherently skewed.
Those in society who have property seek to protect it and use the justice system to maintain the status quo. It is not normally an impoverished child who is seeking to protect their property – normally this child has no property of any worth to protect! How many cases are there in which it is the one without any wealth or power who was forced by circumstance to transgress against the wealthy? Why are we not showed one of these cases as our introduction to the Canadian legal system? Is this not a more realistic picture of what goes on in the legal system? Is it not more common for the wealthier individual – the one with the finances to hire the better lawyer – to win the day and protect their property from those who would take it from them?
I suggest that to show fresh law students a case such as this would paint a more accurate picture of the profession and system into which we are about to enter, however it would miss the most beneficial aspect of the Armorie case. The most valuable aspect of this case is that it serves to reassure any new students who hear it. They are assured that the system is morally just. The system isn’t in place merely to hold up the status quo, it is there to do justice, and make sure that all is right in the world. No one hearing the case of Armorie v Delamirie for the first time would question the decision made, and the undeniable morality enforced by the decision. This is a case which stifles critical thinking. Instead of seeing areas of our system which could be improved, problems which need to be solved, we are presented with a shining jewel of optimism, justice, good judgement and morality, which is expected to be extrapolated to the system as a whole.
The whole justice system is not like Armorie v Delamirie. Sometimes in this system the bad guy wins. Often in this system, the rich guy wins. Instead of warning us about these dangers, and teaching us to think critically about cases where this may happen, we are shown the opposite. Instead of teaching us to engage with every case and think about it from different angles, we are encouraged to accept the morality of the judgements before us, the ones which we in future will argue before a court, and hold up as proper examples of justice being done. What about where justice has not been done?
No system can get it right all the time. I am not suggesting that the Canadian system is not a good one. I am not suggesting that we should overthrow the system completely. I merely think that law students should not be led down a path where questioning the status quo is discouraged. Questioning the status quo is what we should be doing every day, with every case, as representatives of a system which holds enormous power over the everyday lives of Canadians. We should not assume that every case is like that of Armorie v Delamire, we should not assume that justice will implicitly be done just because it was so in the cases that we have been shown. Injustices occur in this system, and if we cannot teach law students to seek them out and challenge them, then they will inevitably continue.