The fundamental legal principle ‘Ignorance of the law is no excuse’ is expressed in the Latin phrase: ignorantia juris non excusat. It is one of universal application and ought to be well known to all lawyers and law students alike. It even applies, without exception, to all laypersons who are subject to the law.
No person can be heard, successfully at least, to utter the defence in a court of law that he does not know the law. If this is so for the layperson, how much more should it apply to the lawyer, whether that lawyer is experienced, young or uninformed. If any lawyer should be heard to even whisper such a defence, whether on behalf of himself or his client, I believe that that he or she ought to be disciplined severely.
But what are the justifications for what may, at first blush, appear to be a harsh legal principle? Firstly, a legal system will collapse if such a defence is allowed to exist. Secondly, someone may conveniently claim not to know the law. I have recently encountered the shocking situation where someone, who ought to know better, claims ignorance of rules even though that person acknowledged having read the document which contains the rules.
Thirdly, and even more astonishingly, there are persons who wilfully avoid knowing the rules so that they can claim ignorance of the rules. They claim to operate on a ‘need-to-know’ basis. What a profound absurdity!
Fourthly, it is very difficult to prove someone’s ignorance of rules, except in very limited circumstances.
Fifthly, there are persons who go further by challenging the credibility of the person who attests to the authenticity of the rules by way of direct personal knowledge. In effect, they confuse the issue of the credibility of the witness or deponent with that of the admissibility of evidence.
In other words, they are calling the person who authored and spearheaded the passage and approval of the rules in question, a liar or someone who is seriously mistaken or delusional.
Then, there are others who claim to be the keepers of the rules.
They claim, in effect, that if they are unable to find the rules, for whatever reason, then no such rules exist. What those persons don’t seem to realize is that if a so-called keeper of rules claims not to be able to find them, then in accordance with the extant laws of evidence, any concerned party can offer a copy in evidence in a court of law, providing that that party can attest, by way of direct, non-hearsay evidence as to the authorship and validity of the rules in question.
Indeed, even the official keeper of rules cannot just get up in a court of law and under oath simply state that some rules are the governing rules merely because he is the keeper of the rules without having any direct personal knowledge of the rules in question and their factual and legal authentication.
He would be met with the objection that such rules are inadmissible as a matter of law. Nor can it be contended that a rule is authentic simply because it bears a particular stamp since anyone can affix a stamp to a so-called ‘rule,’ but that alone does not make it so.
I do agree that based on the proposition that more is certainly better than less when it comes to the enjoyment of a right, it would certainly be great if the central administration of public institutions, or the keepers of rules, could provide every employee with copies of rules.
But if they can’t or won’t, that does not mean that no rules exist.
The application of the rule of law cannot depend on such vagaries and/or inefficiencies. Here, again, greater publicity may help to achieve better justice or prevent injustices, particularly at the University of Guyana.
Head Department of Law