I stated in my last post that my reading focus for the new year is titles that have an insular theme, however I am posting reviews for a few books that are holdovers from 2012. I have not found time to write reviews until after the holidays. I finished reading Is Eating People Wrong? Great Legal Cases and How They Shaped the World by Allan C. Hutchinson on December 30. I came across this title while reading the reference sources in another book. I always read a book cover to cover, starting with the cataloguing information and ending with the bibliography, where I peruse all the titles to find out more to read on the topic. Hutchinson, whom I have met a number of times since he works with my partner Mark, has compiled a collection of eight legal cases which have had a fundamental effect on western law to this day.
I had wanted to read Is Eating People Wrong? based on the case that inspired the title, R v Dudley and Stephens. This case, which put two men who were stranded on a lifeboat without any provisions on trial for murder for killing one of their dying shipmates in order to cannibalize him, tested the theory of the law of necessity. This case had fascinated me and so did its legal outcome. Does one have the right to kill another in order to save oneself? What precedent might this case set if one did?
The background circumstances leading up to each case are described in exciting detail. That’s the point I liked best about Is Eating People Wrong?; the legal talk afterward I could not always grasp or agree to, although it was rare that I finished a chapter feeling this way. Hutchinson states that the tenets of common law are not carved in stone. They aren’t waiting to be chipped at to be exposed by lawyers via court cases. Common law is ever-evolving and changes with the times. What might have been acceptable and supported by judicial rulings, such as segregation in schools, is now viewed as a relic from the dark ages.
Hutchinson also made very interesting reading out of property law in his analysis of Pierson v. Post, wherein one has to assign ownership of a deceased wild fox that one man was in pursuit via hunting (Post) while another man not involved in the hunt ended up killing (Pierson). Hutchinson ended Is Eating People Wrong? with an analysis of the Miranda warning (“You have the right to remain silent…”).
Is Eating People Wrong? was written with a minimum of legal jargon and is a compact introduction to some of the cases that have shaped the common law we know today.