Legal technicality

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The term legal technicality is a casual or colloquial phrase referring to a technical aspect of law. The phrase is not a term of art in the law; it has no exact meaning, nor does it have a legal definition. The words "legal technicality" are often used in a pejorative sense to denote technical aspects of law which result in a legal decision or verdict unfavorable to the party using the phrase.[1]

Some legal technicalities govern legal procedure, enable or restrict access to courts, and/or enable or limit the discretion of a court in handing down judgment. These are aspects of procedural law. Other legal technicalities deal with aspects of substantive law, that is, aspects of the law which articulate specific criteria that a court uses to assess a party's compliance with or violation of, for example, one or more criminal laws or civil laws.[2]

United States

In the United States, Constitutional guarantees such as those included in the Fourth and Fifth amendments to protect an accused from unreasonable search and seizure or from self-incrimination are sometimes referred to as "technicalities" by critics of court decisions based on them, even though they are foundations of the American legal system rather than obscure fine points. A commonly cited example would be attempted prosecution of a crime that was discovered by illegally obtained evidence. Such cases may be dismissed based on lack of evidence as the illegally obtained evidence would not be allowed to be the basis of the prosecution's case (called the "fruit of the poisonous tree" doctrine). Other procedural "technicalities" arise from common law as well, for example, the standard procedural defenses of laches and estoppel applicable within civil law.

Some examples of technical aspects of legal procedure are:


  • “In the News, published the evening of March 19, there was an editorial reviewing the local proceedings, which concluded: 'All of this delay is aggravating to the community. The people of Chattanooga believe that Johnson is guilty, and that he ought to suffer the penalty of the law as speedily as possible. If by legal technicality the case is prolonged and the culprit finally escapes, there will be no use to plead with a mob here if another such crime is committed. Such delays are largely responsible for mob violence all over the country.'”(U.S. v. SHIPP, 1909) The newspaper plainly was using the phrase "legal technicality" in its normal colloquial sense to refer to technical aspects of the law which the newspaper's editorial staff saw as an obstacle to its preferred outcome.
  • (1) “The function of counsel as a guide through complex legal technicalities long has been recognized by this Court.” (U.S. v. Ash, 1973)
  • (2) ”Furthermore, during the federal habeas corpus hearing Davis showed his awareness of legal technicalities.”(used in a footnote, Davis v. North Carolina, 1966)
  • (3) ”If recovery were denied in this case, the railroads, by the simple expedient of doing each other's work, could tie their employees up in legal technicalities..." (Shenker v. Baltimore and Ohio R.Co., 1963)

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