Three Concepts of Law: The Ambiguous Legacy of H.L.A. Hart

Saskatchewan Law Review 61:323-39 (1998)
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The law presents itself as a body of meaning, open to discovery, interpretation, application, criticism, development and change. But what sort of meaning does the law possess? Legal theory provides three sorts of answers. The first portrays the law as a mode of communication through which law-makers convey certain standards or norms to the larger community. The law's meaning is that imparted by its authors. On this view, law is a vehicle, conveying a message from a speaker to an intended audience. The second theory portrays the law as a mode of interpretation, whereby judges, officials, and ordinary citizens make decisions about how the law applies in various practical contexts. The law's meaning is that furnished by its interpreters. According to this theory, law is a receptacle into which decision-makers pour meaning. The third viewpoint argues that these theories, while not altogether wrong, are incomplete because they downplay or ignore the autonomous meaning that the law itself possesses. This theory suggests that the law is basically a mode of participation, whereby legislators, judges, officials, and ordinary people attune themselves to an autonomous field of legal meaning. The law's meaning is grounded in a body of social practice which is independent of both the law's authors and its interpreters and which is infused with basic values and principles that transcend the practice. On this view, law is the emblem of meaning that lies beyond it. Elements of all three theories are present in H.L.A. Hart's influential work, The Concept of Law, which attempts to fuse them into a single, all-encompassing theory. Nevertheless, as we will argue here, the attempt is not successful. Any true reconciliation of the communication and interpretation theories can only take place within the framework of a fully developed participation theory. In the early stages of his work, Hart lays the foundation for such a theory. However, his failure to elaborate it in a thoroughgoing way renders the work incomplete and ultimately unbalanced. As we will see, there is something to be learned from this failure.
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