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The Case of the Speluncean Explorers

Question :

The case of the Speluncean explorers is the article by the legal philosopher, Lon L. Fuller which was first published in Harvard Law Review in the year 1949. It presents the legal philosophy puzzle to readers with five solutions to it in the form of the judicial opinion which are attributed to the judges who are sitting on the fictional Supreme Court of Newgarth in year 4300. This article offers five judicial responses where each differs in the reasoning and on the question of whether survivors shall be found guilty of the breach of law. Each judgement clashes with one another and states the role of court vis- a- vis executives and legislatures.

  • What is the case of Speluncean explorers?
  • Explain the judicial opinion of five judges in the case of Speluncean explorers?
  • What was the result of the further proceeding in the case of the Speluncean explorers?
Answer :

Basic facts in the case of Speluncean explorers

By a landslide, a group of the cave explorers (Spelunkers) were trapped. When approached by starvation, they made radio contacts with the rescue teams. It was estimated by the rescue team engineers that rescue will take further 10 days. When their situation was described to the physicians, they told the cave explorers that it is unlikely that they would be able to survive for the next 10 days without the food. The explorers then asked whether they would be able to survive if they kill anyone of them and ate it. The advice given by the physician was they would survive. The explorers further asked that if they would hold the lottery in order to determine who should be killed and eaten, the rescue team was not willing to advise on it. Then the radio was turned off and the lottery was held. The loser was killed and eaten. After they were rescued, all were prosecuted for the charge of murder for which the Commonwealth of Newgarth has a guilty verdict which carries a mandatory capital punishment. He Trial court and the members of Jury filed the petition to the Chief Executive to commute the sentence from death sentence to the imprisonment of six months. The Chief executive refused to act and the appeal was considered by the Supreme Court of Newgarth.

The judicial opinion of the judges

Chief justice Truepenny

The opinion of the Chief Justice was expository. He stated that the statute is unambiguous which have no applicable legal defences so it is the duty of court to apply it. He opined that granting mercy is the decision of the executive and not the judiciary but the judges of the court may add their name to the petition in order to request the mercy. Hence, the Chief justice affirmed the conviction and but recommended the clemency. He wanted to allow justice without impairing either letter or spirit of the statutes and also without offering any of the encouragement for disregard of the law.

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Justice Foster

He was of the opinion that if the court declares the the men have committed the crime then the is convicted by the tribunal itself. The defendants were in the state of the nature so the normal laws of Newgarth shall not apply to them. The law of nature have allowed the defendant to agree to the sacrifice of one life in order to save the lives of other four people.

Further opinion was that if the law of Newgarth applies to the defendants then a purposive approach should be taken and judges must find the exception to law of implication as the judges or courts have done earlier with the self defence. Hence the purpose of law to create a deterrent effect ion defendant cannot be served so the conviction is set aside.

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Justice Tatting

He strongly disagrees with the opinion of Justice Foster. He criticised that state of nature and did not satisfied with the formulation of Justice Foster to place the law of contract above the law against the murder. Further he noted that it is difficult to apply purposive approach when the criminal statute have multiple purpose like rehabilitation and retribution. The exception of self defence cannot be applied in present case as it involves wilful killing and exception of self defence is not the wilful killing. He cited the judgement of Commonwealth v. Valjean where the starvation did not justify theft of loads of bread, let alone the homicide. So by criticising the opinion of Justice Foster, no alternative decision was reached by Justice Tatting so he made the unprecedented decision of the withdrawing from a case.

Justice Keen

He criticised the opinion of Chief Justice who proposed appeal to the executive for the mercy by arguing that a respect of separation of power need to be done and appeal must be done in the capacity of private citizen only. He criticised that the judges failed to make a distinction of legal from the moral aspects of case. According to him, there are many purposes of law where the difficulty arises in divining actual purpose of the legislation.

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Justice Handy

The judge preferred to use the common sense approach rather than the abstract legal theories in order to resolve the case. He emphasised on the need for the court to maintain the public confidence. He used Justice Foster's purposive approach as the legal rationale and was aware that about 90% public want lesser punishment for the defendants or be released. Hence the conviction was set aside.

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