Letter of Law versus Spirit of Law: Child’s Custody in Context
The letter of law refers to the exact words and language of a statute or legal provision to define legal rights, obligations and prohibitions. The letter of law is often precise and technical, and it may sometimes seem overly rigid or inflexible. It is the literal interpretation of the law as written, without taking into account the intent or purpose behind it. In other words, this idea is concerned with the text of the law itself, and it can be used to argue for a narrow or strict interpretation of the law. It is important because it provides the specific rules and guidelines that individuals and organisations must follow to avoid legal penalties or consequences.
On the other hand, the spirit of law refers to the underlying purpose or intention of the law. It is concerned with the broader principles and objectives that the law seeks to achieve, rather than just the specific words used to express those principles. The spirit of law is often invoked when the literal interpretation of the law would lead to an unjust or absurd result. It considers the societal or moral values that the law is meant to uphold and seeks to interpret and apply the law in a way that is consistent with those values. The spirit of law may allow for a more flexible or nuanced interpretation of the law, in order to ensure that the law achieves its intended purpose.
Let me illustrate the difference between the two, consider a speed limit law that states that the maximum speed on a certain road is 50 miles per hour. The letter of law would focus on the specific number "50" and would hold that any speed over 50 miles per hour is illegal. The spirit of law, on the other hand, would focus on the goal of the law, which is to promote public safety and reduce the risk of accidents. A driver who is going 55 miles per hour on an empty road in good weather conditions may argue that they are not endangering anyone's safety and therefore not violating the spirit of law, even though they are technically violating the letter of law.
In some cases, there may be tension between letter and spirit of laws. As a result, arguably a question may come what types of law do we actually need to serve societies? In a country like Bangladesh, both the letter and spirit of laws are important. The letter of law is necessary to provide clear and specific guidelines for behaviour and to ensure that individuals and organisations are held accountable for their actions. It provides a framework for the legal system to enforce rights and obligations and helps to ensure that justice is served.
However, relying solely on the letter of law can lead to an overly rigid and inflexible legal system, where the strict interpretation of the law may not always align with the broader societal or moral values that the law is meant to uphold. This is where the spirit of law becomes imperative, as it allows for a more nuanced and flexible interpretation of the law to ensure that it serves its intended purpose of promoting justice and fairness.
For example, if a law is written in a way that would lead to an unjust outcome in a particular case, a judge may interpret the law in a way that aligns with the spirit of law and promotes justice. Similarly, if a law has become outdated or no longer serves its intended purpose, it may need to be reinterpreted or updated in order to align with the changing values and needs of society.
As for instance, the literal meaning of the family laws in Bangladesh refers to staying underaged daughter in her mother's custody when it comes to the question of separation or divorce between husband and wife. Notwithstanding, courts can solve the current problem regarding their daughter's custody between Imran Sharif (a Bangladeshi father) and Nakano Erico (a Japanese mother) using the spirit of law in order to ensure the future true welfare of their daughter's custody.
In conclusion, both the letter of law and the spirit of law are necessary to serve societies. To solve the specific purpose, judges and legal scholars must decide how to balance these two aspects of the law to arrive at a just and fair outcome.
The Writer is a Law Graduate from the University of Ottawa, now pursuing his PhD at the Department of Business Law and Taxation, Monash University.