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The spirit of the law versus the letter of the law


I originally trained and qualified as a judge in my country, and after that training, one of the things that drives you absolutely nuts is how people tend to use the letter of the law to defeat the spirit of that law. Sometimes it even happens with good intent - people assume, quite rightly in a lot of cases, that they do not understand why the law, or regulation, or club or professional rule that was put in place, so they just follow it no matter what.


Unfortunately, this unthinking attitude can create a lot of suffering.


It is not just little things, like tennis club rules that when a team comes a minute late, they have forfeited the game - which makes sense in a normal context to avoid teams constantly coming late due to avoidable reasons (like getting up late in the morning), but which does not make much sense when there was a publicly verifiable pile-up on the only motorway or road leading to the game site, in which case the guest team would do good to allow a suspension of that rule. Most people in the guest team will agree, but there is always one, usually the one who knows he would have lost if he had had to play, who just absolutely has to insist on the rule, claiming it to be a matter of rule-obeying "integrity". There really are people who do believe this strongly in rules, as if they were handed down by God himself and not made by man (and believe it or not, I used to be one of them), but it is usually just someone trying to find a way to cheat, and get away easy, by using the rules as a club to hit others over the head with.


Sometimes, the strict observance of rules, no matter what, can actually be quite funny.


I currently work in London, and in England, compared to, say, Germany, rules tend to be more a suggestion than anything strictly observed (until something goes wrong, that is), so if you stand at a red light on a street in London, the general consensus between Londoners is, that you look left and right, and then walk over the street if there is no car. Only tourists are still standing on the other side of the road once the road is clear - that's how you can tell they are tourists. Of course, there are reasons why you may think that is not the right policy, a bad and dangerous example to children perhaps, but then again, that's just how it is in London, whether you like it or not, and children have adapted, I presume.


So I got used to that after a while, and it became part of my natural unconscious thought process that the light "red" means "look left and right and then go if it's clear". So there I am visiting my folks in Germany, and I am standing at a red light at this tiny street. I didn't even understand why the light was there. You can see for hundreds of yards in each direction, and there are no cars. I remember I am in a small town in Germany, so I look around whether there are any children anywhere in the vicinity who I could be a bad example to, and there are none. Absolutely zip. There is nobody on the street or at the windows. So I start walking over that tiny road and am right in the middle of it, when my mom shouts at the top of her voice:


"Stop, it's RED!!!"


I almost got a heart attack. I looked left and right, thinking I had missed a car when looking, preparing to jump and roll over it quickly, but there is no car anywhere. So I turn around asking what she is concerned about. She said:


"IT'S RED!!!!"


So I walk from the middle of the road back towards where I came from, and we waited at the red light.

And we waited.

And we waited.

I think we may have waited for about 5 Minutes before the light changed. There was a little bit of excitement when after about 2 Minutes a car appeared on the horizon and passed us 30 seconds later. We kept waiting for another car to come and were disappointed. Thankfully we weren't in a hurry to get anywhere, and the sun was shining.


Sometimes, however, the strict observance of rules is not quite so funny.


Sometimes, the strict observance of rules is used to break the spirit of the law - as we all know from various tax avoidance schemes, or lawyers using the wording of a contract to screw over the other side, when both sides know that the wording is deliberately misinterpreted when considering what the parties discussed at the time - and if you do not have emails to prove those discussions, or at least recordings, you may end up in a lot of trouble.


Sometimes it is used for bullying. Few people know this, but there is actually a paragraph in German codified law that states (loosely translated) that using a right or a law simply for the purpose of harming another is not permissible:


"§ 226 BGB Schikaneverbot. Die Ausübung eines Rechts ist unzulässig, wenn sie nur den Zweck haben kann, einem anderen Schaden zuzufügen."


This section was included in codified law for a reason, and the law makers must have thought of it happening quite a lot, if they bothered to put it into the German law book that covers German law principles applicable to all areas of German law.


Sometimes, people do not use a law to deliberately harm someone, but they do so anyway, because they do not understand the intent of the law. Some laws and rules are made in order to protect people. Rules that therapists or doctors or teachers should not have any personal relationships with their clients, and that managers should not date their reports do make sense. They are there to protect the clients or reports, who are in a vulnerable position and therefore susceptible to manipulation by a doctor or teacher or manager, who is in a position of power. Some relationships may even create a closeness that is similiar to that of an intimate partner, in which case it is especially necessary to protect the client or the report from use of the relationship by the person they trust with their life or health or career, so the person in power does not use that relationship for personal goals, however well meant. Sometimes, it may be the doctor or manager who develops feelings, but the client or report does not, in which case that use of the relationship actually becomes ABuse, especially if the client or report does not feel they are able to say no without dire consequences for their life or career. So rules that do not allow a relationship between the person in power and the client or report do usually make sense and protect the client or report. Similiarly, in some countries, people would argue that the rules that do not allow for marriages between people of different religions, are rules that protect people, including the people who want to have that relationship, because different religions have different rules, and the conflict between those rules can bring trouble in inter-faith relationships, which can harm the people in that relationship and make their life much more difficult. I visited Israel 25 years ago, and I spent a week in a village where it was the belief and the rule that interfaith marriages were not permitted, even though 3 faiths were living peacefully together in a tiny village.


Now assume for a second that there is such a thing as soul mates. What if a client or report has been looking for his or her soul mate for a long time, and finally finds that person, but the way they meet is that the soul mate is the doctor, or teacher, or manager. What if the relationship did not even start as a student-teacher relationship, for example, but one recognized the other at a different event, but the only way for one to get close to the other was to put themselves into a situation that they only realised later put them into a student-teacher relationship, where these rules may apply, without that ever being the intention? What if there does not seem to be a way out of it and still meet? What if the soul mate is a member of a different religion? Do you think the rule that is usually so good and so useful and so protective of the client or report or member of the family could do a lot of damage to the very person it tries to protect?


What if, even if both people in the relationship realize this is an exception, they are kept from each other by the people around them who rigorously enforce the rule, simply because it is the rule? Some may even see the damage that is being done by it, and they will still enforce it, because it is the rule, and it's just easier to insist on the rule than to deal with the issue at hand.


In that village I visited 25 years ago, this is what happened. I saw a bride the day before here wedding when her wedding pictures were taking on a hill, and as she looked very sad. I asked my host why she seemed so unhappy. My host responded that this was a girl who had fallen in love with a boy from another faith, and they had been caught together. As a result, she was disgraced and forced to marry the man in the village who nobody wanted, because he was violent and cruel.


So, the village had a rule that interfaith marriage was not allowed, to protect their youngsters from the problems that could arise in interfaith marriages, the additional conflicts, the different beliefs, etc., and that rule had now been turned against the youngsters, and had not protected them, but done them grave harm. But the village didn't see it that way. A rule was a rule, and it needed to be obeyed.


I asked my host why the two of them didn't just leave the village and went to Tel Aviv, or abroad, surely they could make a life there, where rules were not so strict? My host said that another couple had tried that a few years ago. Two years earlier, their relatives in the village had told them that all was forgiven and forgotten and invited them back to the village for a visit. The two of them came, happy to be reunited with their families again.


They were killed by the village.


The very rule that was supposed to protect them from harm ended up killing them.


Strict observance of rules without seeing the spirit behind the rule, the reason for it, the context, the making of it, as a judge would consider, does not usually lead to such lethal consequences in, say, Europe or the US. It may have changed in that village in Israel by now as well, after all this was a quarter of a century ago. Of course, there may be instances where people kill themselves out of grief over the loss of their soul mate due to the meddling of outsiders - Romeo and Juliet is still a popular drama, probably because people realize how existential the fulfillment of a loving union with the right person (and not just with anyone who kind of fits the bill) can be to a person, and how deeply the loss is felt, especially when it is perceived as unjust. But even if the consequences are not lethal, sticking to the rules no matter what can still do a lot of harm, when people, especially third parties not directly involved, insist on sticking to the rule without understanding or caring of what the rule is trying to protect, and if they do not make room for exceptions to allow the spirit of the rule to live. Sometimes these people will stop at nothing to protect the rule, plotting, deceiving, and harming in the process and in the name of "good" or "order", just so their rule is protected, forgetting the people in the process. Sometimes, the demand of "integrity" leads to anything but, because the concept of integrity the outsider pursues is dead outside its context, which the outsider, being an outsider, may not even understand, and integrity looks very different in terms of actions when put in the proper context.


Sometimes, it is time to step back and take a look at what is really happening. Figuring out what is right, what is integrity, can sometimes be a lot of work, but if we want to claim integrity for ourselves, we cannot afford to paint with a broad brush and not make the effort. Sometimes it is time to take a look at the rule, take a look at why it was made, and whether it really makes sense to apply it in this case. Sometimes, it is time to drop the judgement and start finding compassion. Sometimes, it is time to look at things from a perspective of love, rather than a perspective of right or rule, and sometimes, when we change perspective, the world can suddenly look very different.



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