Legal systems of England and the United States
Although the legal systems of England and the United States are superficially similar, they differ profoundly in their approaches to and uses of legal reasons: substantive reasons are more common than formal reasons in the United States, whereas in England the reverse is true.
This distinction reflects a difference in the visions of law that prevail in the two counties. In England the law has traditionally been viewed as a system of rules; the United States favors a vision of law as an outward expression of the community’s sense of right and justice.
Substantive reasons, as applied to law, are based on moral, economic, political, and other considerations. These reasons are found both “in the law” and “outside the law,” so to speak.
Substantive reasons inform the content of a large part of the law: constitutions, statutes, contracts, verdicts, and the like. Consider, for example, a statute providing that “no vehicles shall be taken into public parks”.
Suppose that no specific rationales or purposes were explicitly written into this statute, but that it was clear (from its legislative history) that the substantive purpose of the statute was to ensure quiet and safety in the park.
Now suppose that a veterans’ group mounts a World War II jeep (in running order but without a battery) as a war memorial on a concrete slab in the park, and charges are brought against its members.
Most judges in the United States would find the defendants not guilty because what they did had no adverse effect on park quiet and safety.
Formal reasons are different in that they frequently prevent substantive reasons from coming into play, even when substantive reasons are explicitly incorporated into the law at hand.
For example, when a document fails to comply with stipulated requirements, the court may render the document legally ineffective.
A will requiring written witness may be declared null and void and therefore, unenforceable for the formal reason that the requirement was not observed.
Once the legal rule—that a will is invalid for lack of proper witnessing—has been clearly established, and the legality of the rule is not in question, application of that rule precludes from consideration substantive arguments in favor of the will’s validity or enforcement.
Legal scholars in England and the United States have long bemused themselves with extreme examples of formal and substantive reasoning.
On the one hand, formal reasoning in England has led to wooden interpretations of statutes and an unwillingness to develop the common law through judicial activism.
On the other hand, freewheeling substantive reasoning in the United States has resulted in statutory interpretations so liberal that the texts of some statutes have been ignored altogether.