Of Snakes And Your Ladders To Improve Your English By Digesting Court Judgements


I have always been fascinated with court judgements from my earliest days of learning the law. Among the many motivations I have for reading judgement discourses is the authoritative wordplay used by judges in delivering  decisions.

My personal view if if English is not your native tongue and you want to improve your command of the language by leaps and bounds, read court judgements. You will get a sensation akin to vertigo at first if you’re not used to it, but believe me, once you get the hang of it, it’s just another roller-coaster ride you want to go on again and again.

Court judgement language is rich. The aphorisms and adages and maxims and proverbs and idioms in delivering the “held” and in their obiter dicta. Often there is ten-uchi sarcasm in their expressions, sarcasm so sharp and swift that you only realise it when the proverbial blood drips. Many are milder, but put the guilty party right in his place, making you wish you had the judge’s word power to shut your office nemesis up in the same way.

One way or another, a layman (a person outside the legal profession) has  much to learn from studying the English language used in court judgements. I quote here some extracts from the judgement from the Malaysian case of Gek Sing a/l Kaliappan v Public Prosecutor [1999] 6 MLJ 641, per Vincent Ng J. I have highlighted words and phrases I deem of interest and your homework is to Google up (or take a pot-shot guess in some cases!) their meanings and come back to me 🙂

“It then dawned upon the learned magistrate who, incidentally, had presided over all the previous four similar snake-cases, that snakes of the species concerned fetched considerably higher prices in the overseas esoteric market of gourmet patrons than auction prices, and the courts may have been unwittingly used to regularise or legitimise the illegal possession for smuggling of protected snakes. To put it bluntly, there appeared to be a cunning conspiracy for monetary gain through cynical instrumentation of the court of law by certain parties. According to the learned magistrate, in his ground of judgement, the 2,546 snakes could fetch an estimated RM80,000 in the esoteric market, which works out to an average of RM31.42 per snake. Whereas it appears from the receipts exhibits in p 24 of the appeal record, that certain bidders at the auction conducted by the Wild Life Protection Department paid only around RM4 per snake. Thus, even taking into consideration the total fines of RM11,000 paid in the current case, it does not call for any mathematical prowess to figure out that the net profit on 2,546 snakes could not be less than RM58,816. Such cool amount of illicit profit obviously attracts hot penalty. Hence, in the current case, bearing in mind the unusually short recurrence span, and the prevalence in Perlis of illegal possession of huge quantity of snakes (obviously for smuggling purposes) and in order to deter such offences, the learned magistrate Tuan Azizan Md Arshad had, quite rightly and wholly acting within his powers, found it necessary to take judicial notice of the considerably higher prices than auction prices that such snakes fetch in foreign esoteric market, and was driven to impose a short term of imprisonment besides the maximum fine he had normally imposed in the previous cases…

In dispensing justice, magistrates should not be oblivious of the feel of temperature outside their courts and continue to adopt the same approach in sentencing while (as here) there is laughter in the air outside by certain characters on their way to the bank

However, confronted with the unfortunate fact disclosed in the appeal record that about 1,893 snakes had died while awaiting disposal… And, after having heard counsel, I decided that as a forewarning to characters of the appellant’s ilk, this was a proper case to invoke s 325 to increase the respective… period of imprisonments..”


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