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Along with the glorious apostrophe, the comma is a punctuation mark that is so frequently misplaced and misused that it can be confusing for learners who study legal English to know how and where to use it. In this blog post, we look at some of the most frequent mistakes regarding the comma.
There are a fair number of legal cases in English language speaking jurisdictions where a comma was cited (mentioned) as changing the outcome of the case. The trial of Roger Casement in 1916 for treason led to the diplomat being 'hanged by a comma' in the words of NYU law professor Gary Slapper in The Times.
The then Sir Roger had been accused of treason, but had committed the alleged crime while in Germany. Several versions of The Treason Act of 1351 seemed to allow for crimes of treason to only be prosecuted if they had been carried out in England. Casement's barrister defended his client by saying that as the crime had been committed in Germany then he could not be prosecuted. The presiding judges looked closely at the Act in the original Norman French and determined that the positioning of the comma meant that the law should be read in the widest possible sense, and so Clement was hanged.
Where legal professionals make errors
Take a look at this sentence which is not untypical of TOLES and legal English students and decide in your own mind if there is anything incorrect:
"I looked at the case, Jones v Smith with my good colleague, Peter.
The answer is that there is no need for any commas in this sentence. The sentence should read:
"I looked at the case Jones v Smith with my good colleague Peter."
This is because the case is not the only legal case in existence and because the speaker has many good colleagues. How about this sentence?
"I looked at my most recent case, Jones v Smith with the supervising partner, Peter."
In this sentence, the commas are needed as Jones v Smith and Peter are the only things in existence that the speaker could be referring to.
So, if something is Unique then you should use a comma. If not, do not use it.
"The case of the century, Jones v Smith is to be decided today."
"The legal case Jones v Smith will be decided by the courts today."
"Our Managing Partner, John Jones has announced his retirement."
"Our corporate lawyer Peter Watson will be leaving in the summer."
The Oxford Comma
The Oxford (or serial) comma is known as such because of our friends at Oxford University Press. It is used before the word "and" at the end of lists if three or more things. Its use is optional and it is therefore up to you whether you use it, but it does help to clarify matters. Here is an example of good use of an Oxford comma (although it is not essential in this case).
"There are three lawyers in this law firm: Steve Cooper, John Barney, and Fred Aykroyd."
This push notification to your right from Sky News did need an Oxford comma because as it stands, Barack Obama is about to marry Fidel Castro.
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Sources: The Times Law section, The New York Times