Let us import from Hart the famous no vehicles in park example to illustrate what we mean by legal reasoning and interpretation.1
Imagine you arrive at a local park by scooter and see a signpost where it can be read No vehicles in the park.
- Does a scooter count as a vehicle?
- Is the word ‘vehicles’ only applicable to means of transportation that reach a certain speed threshold?
- Can I explore the park by scooter or should I walk?
You conclude that the prohibition probably applies only to vehicles that might threat safety of the passers-by, like cars or motorcycles. You decide entering the park by scooter.
A police officer approaches and applies you a fine, arguing that you have violated a rule the forbids the circulation of vehicles in the park. You wonder how you can contradict such understanding and present your point of view.
If a court was confronted which such a case,2 it could decide that, for the purposes of the prohibition, a scooter is a vehicle. In that case, the court would ground such decision on a (value-laden) family resemblance3 between the factual scooter and the normative concept of vehicle,4 and confer legal effect to the prohibition, for instance, by condemning the offender to pay a fine.
If a different interpretative path were adopted, the intellectual process of legal reasoning would not change in its structure, but would change its content.
The court could, instead, understand that a scooter does not have a normative family resemblance with a vehicle in the context of the prohibition, case in which it would conclude that the norm does not regulate the facts at stake. If that was the case, the scooter driver would not be fined.
This is where interpretation and legal reasoning intertwine and mutually constitute each other – the court attributes meaning to a legal norm (interpretation) and uses that interpretation to evoke that norm as the regulative criterion for closure (legal reasoning).
Herbert L. A. Hart, The Concept of Law, Oxford University Press (1994) 124-129. ↩
If a person decided to enter the park driving her scooter and a police officer fined her for violating the prohibition (under the argument that a scooter counts as vehicle), she could contest the fine in court. ↩
The idea of family resemblance can be found in Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, translated by G. E. M- Anscombe, Macmillan Publishing (1953) §§ 67-68. ↩
The example must not be understood as if legal interpretation was reducible to a single semantic operation – it involves multiple iterations which are not exclusively semantic, but logical, axiological, systematic or teleological. ↩