Legal Writing

A Four-Thousand-Word Sentence

And so forth (image: The Proceedings of the Old Bailey)

One of the many problems with legal writing is the abundance of long sentences, and I have mocked a few of those over the years. For example, there was this 538-word sentence drafted by the U.S. Court of International Trade, and that sucked, and then there was the even longer 593-word first sentence (and paragraph) of the Massachusetts Payment of Wages Act, and that sucked just over ten percent harder. Some people consider this Medicare statute the longest sentence in the English language, and although it is more than 11,000 words long, I’m not sure it counts as “English.”

This one (sent by @infixfun) dates back to 1781, but that’s no excuse.

It comes from The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, a website that lets you search the records from almost 200,000 criminal trials held at London’s central criminal court between 1674 and 1913. This particular proceeding was the trial of Francis Henry de la Motte, who was charged with high treason in 1781. He was actually a French citizen, apparently, but at least according to the prosecutor he could still be a traitor to the English king, since he was living in England. (Really he was being charged with espionage, but whatever.) And while it got much, much worse for de la Motte, the proceedings started off by subjecting him to a 3,980-word sentence explaining what he was charged with and why.

Arguably, the sentence is a mere 3,591 words long, because the first 389 words appear to be just the court talking about itself, and that part does end with a colon. It goes like this:

BE IT REMEMBERED, That at the general session of Oyer and Terminer of our Lord the King, holden for the county of Middlesex, at Hick’s Hall in Saint John’s street in the said county, on Tuesday the 24th day of April, in the 21st year of the reign of our sovereign lord George the Third, king of Great-Britain, &c. before William Mainwaring, esq. the Reverend Sir George Booth, bart. George Mercer, David Walker, esqrs. and others their fellows, justices of our said lord the king, assigned by his Majesty’s letters-patent under the great seal of Great-Britain, directed to the same justices before named, and others in the said letters named, to enquire more fully the truth by the oath of good and lawful men of the said county of Middlesex, and by other ways, means, and methods, by which they shall or may better know (as well within liberties as without) by whom the truth of the matter may be better known, of all treasons, misprisions of treason, insurrections, rebellions, counterfeitings, clippings, washings, false coinings, and other falsities of the money of Great-Britain and other kingdoms or dominions whatsoever; and all murthers, felonies, manslaughters, killings, burglaries, rapes of women, unlawful meetings, conventicles, unlawful uttering of words, assemblies, misprisions, confederacies, false allegations, trespasses, riots, routs, retentions, escapes, contempts, falsities, negligences, concealments, maintenances, oppressions, champarties, deceits, and all other evil doings, offences, and injuries whatsoever, and also the accessaries of them, within the county aforesaid (as well within liberties as without) by whomsoever and in what manner soever done, committed, or perpetrated, and by whom or to whom, when, how, and after what manner; and of all other articles and circumstances concerning the premises, and every of them or any of them in any manner whatsoever; and the said treasons, and other the premises, to hear and determine according to the laws and customs of England, by the oath of John Tilney, Miles Dent, John Thomas, John Dawson, James Smith, Richard Snow, Joseph Cary, John Tayler, John Clark, Thomas M’Carty, Isaac Watson, William Cock, Richard Stapleton, Timothy Tomlins, and Joseph Muskett, good and lawful men of the county aforesaid, now here sworn and charged to inquire for our said Lord the king for the body of the same county, It is presented in manner and form following (that is to say):

Now, it seems doubtful that any of this was even necessary. Most likely, everybody already knew where they were currently located, what the date was, who was king at the time, and so forth. All this stuff is just wasting everybody’s time. Plus, more than two centuries later, lawyers will still be following your terrible example. SeeA Note From Kevin (Hereinafter, “Me”) to All Attorneys (Hereinafter, “You”)” (Feb. 20, 2020).

But even if we exclude all that crap, what remains is a single sentence that is over 3,500 words long. I can’t include all of it here (well, I could, but I won’t), so let me just give you a few highlights. (And yes, it is ridiculous that anyone needs to provide “highlights” of a single sentence.) It starts like this:

The jurors for our sovereign lord the king, upon their oath, present, that an open and public war, on the 11th day of January, in the 20th year of the reign of our sovereign lord George the Third, by the grace of God, of Great-Britain, France, and Ireland, king, defender of the faith, and so forth, and long before and ever since hitherto by land and by sea was, and yet is carried on and prosecuted by Lewis the French king against our most serene, illustrious, and excellent prince, our said lord the now king; and that one Francis Henry De la Motte, late of the parish of Saint George, Hanover-square, in the county of Middlesex, gentleman, a subject of our said lord the king, of his kingdom of Great-Britain, well knowing the premises, not having the fear of God in his heart, nor weighing the duty of his allegiance, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil, as a false traitor against our said most serene, illustrious, and excellent prince George the Third, now king of Great-Britain, and so forth….

So, in the first 184 words whoever’s responsible for this has already mentioned the king five times. He also felt it necessary to say twice what he was the king of, the only concession to the shortness of life being the phrase “and so forth” (the “yada yada yada” of the 18th century). As this part shows, we are in for a very long haul with this sentence.

What comes next is about 3000 words’ worth of lengthy clauses that appear to be the specific acts with which he, the said Francis Henry de la Motte, is charged with doing, to wit:

he, the said Francis Henry De la Motte, on the said 11th day of January, in the said 20th year of the reign of our said lord the king, and on divers other days and times, as well before as after that day, with force and arms, at the said parish of Saint George, Hanover-square, in the said county of Middlesex, falsely, wickedly, and traiterously did compass, imagine, and intend our said present sovereign lord the king, of and from the royal state, crown, title, power, and government of this realm of Great-Britain, to depose and wholly deprive, and the same lord the king to kill, and bring and put to death: and to fulfill, perfect, and bring to effect, his said most evil and wicked treason, compassings, and imaginations aforesaid….

I guess that one’s not very specific, is it? Well, de la Motte was charged, as the next 2500 words or so explain over and over again, with conspiring to pass military information to the French (with whom the British were then at war), as is summarized thusly:

to deliver to certain subjects of the said French king, then and yet enemies of our said lord the king, certain letters and instructions, in writing, to inform the said French king and his subjects, then and yet enemies of our said lord the king, of the state, condition, destination, and stations of the naval and military forces of this kingdom; and other advice and intelligence, to enable and assist the said French king and his subjects in the prosecution and carrying on of the said war against our said lord the king and his subjects.

And so forth. Each of these clauses could be considered separate sentences, I suppose, but they are linked by semicolons, so technically it is a single mass of words, nearly four thousand of them, in fact.

This was only count one of two, by the way.

Most of these words (and many more in the full record of the proceedings) were completely unnecessary, but they did at least have the virtue of lengthening de la Motte’s lifespan slightly, because it doesn’t seem like he had much chance of being acquitted. It appears that he was caught red-handed with at least some incriminating papers. Defense counsel argued that his client had been framed by the main witness for the prosecution, who was, among other things, an “unblushing miscreant” whose “whole life has been a satire on the vices of human nature.” (That would have been a pretty good line for Joe Biden, I think, but it’s not really his style.) But the defense was not helped in the slightest by what seems to me to be a pretty biased discussion of the evidence by the presiding judge after he had instructed the jury on the law.

Despite the total number of words deployed, the trial was concluded in one day, according to the report. It began at 9:00 in the morning, and the jury started deliberating at 10:35 that night. And after what was surely an extremely careful consideration of all the evidence during the eight minutes that followed, it returned at 10:43 with a verdict of guilty.

The sentence delivered at the end of this proceeding was far more terrible than the one at the beginning, as the judge pronounced that de la Motte would be drawn and quartered. (According to the Wikipedia article, he was spared the actual quartering, which I guess is what passed for leniency at the time.) It only took the judge 97 words to do that, but still, pretty awful.