The language of the law. Part Latin, part Anglo-Saxon, all confusing.

So it’s almost the halfway mark for the first week of the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy for The Legal Genealogist.

The main focus for me this first week is the Family History Law Library class that I co-coordinate with Rick Sayre, and we have a truly outstanding group of students. That makes it a real joy for both of us and — we can hope — for all of them as well.

But it really does mean that time to do things like write blog posts (or sleep…) is in short supply. And since nobody wants the blog to go completely dark, let’s have some more fun with some more legal alphabet soup.

And today’s word is barratry.

Letter B

Now you’ll forgive me, I hope, for being amused to no end by this one, which of course in maritime law means an “act committed by the master or mariners of a vessel, for some unlawful or fraudulent purpose, contrary to their duty to the owners, whereby the latter sustain injury.”1

That’s not why it makes me giggle. Nor the fact that, in Scotch law, it means the “crime committed by a judge who receives a bribe for his judgment.”2

No, it’s the fact that the principal meaning of the term in American law is “the practice of exciting groundless judicial proceedings.”3

And guess who usually was the one accused of — and even convicted of — the crime of barratry?

Yep.

The lawyers.

It turns out barratry has been an offense in the laws of America since at least as early as 1641 with the adoption by the Massachusetts Bay Colony of a bar against such actions: “If any man shall be proved and Judged a commen Barrator vexing others with unjust frequent and endlesse suites, It shall be in the power of Courts both to denie him the benefit of the law, and to punish him for his Barratry.”4

Connecticut followed suit in 1650,5 and by 1808, its laws provided:

… if any person shall be proved and adjudged a common barrator, vexing others with unjust, frequent and needless suits, he shall pay a fine of seventeen dollars into the public treasury of this state, by order of the court before whom he shall be convicted; and before the same court he shall become bound, with one surety, for his good behaviour (for one year at least;) or on refusal, be committed to remain in prison said time, or till he procure surety, as aforesaid.6

Now, being in the law business by training, I don’t want to say only lawyers got nailed for barratry. A particularly obnoxious individual plaintiff could be charged as well and, the Connecticut version of the statute said, “the court before whom such vexatious suit shall be brought, may, and is hereby empowered to reject such suit, giving cost to the adverse party.”7 In other words, you not only lose, you pay the other side’s costs.

But it surely is the kind of legal term — and court record — that makes you think maybe, just maybe, sometimes justice may be done, now, doesn’t it?


SOURCES

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “2019 alphabet soup: B is for…,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 16 Jan 2019 (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed date).

  1. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 122, “barratry.”
  2. Ibid.
  3. See “The Earliest New England Code of Laws, 1641,” American History Leaflets No. 25 (New York : Lovell & Co., 1896), 8; digital images, Google Books (https://books.google.com : accessed 15 Jan 2019).
  4. Note 1 to “An Act against Barratry and common Barrators,” in The Public Statute Laws of Connecticut: Volume 1 (Hartford: General Assembly, 1808), 99; digital images, Google Books (https://books.google.com : accessed 15 Jan 2019).
  5. Ibid., §1.
  6. Ibid., §2.
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