F.W. Maitland, the famous legal historian wrote, “Such is the unity of all history that any one who endeavors to tell a piece of it must feel that his first sentence tears a seamless web.” (A Prologue to a History of English Law, 14 L. Qtrly Rev. 13 (1898)) Maitland didn't actually say that the "law is a seamless web," but he is usually given credit for the idea that the law forms some kind of "organic unity" or is characterized by pervasive, systematic, and strong interconnections. The idea that law is seamless web is ambiguous--the aphorism expresses different ideas on different occasions. This post in the Legal Theory Lexicon series will explicate the seamless web metaphor and its several implications for legal theory.
As always, the Lexicon is especially aimed at law students--especially first-year law students--with an interest in legal theory.
The Seamless Web and the Interconnectedness of Legal Doctrine
One idea expressed by the metaphor of the seamless web is the interconnectedness of legal doctrine. If the law is a seamless web, then the categorization of legal doctrine into discrete fields (torts, property, contracts, and so forth) does not accurately capture the nature of the law. A classic example of this idea can be found by examining the line between torts and contracts. It might be thought that there is some "seam" or dividing line that sharply separates these two doctrinal fields. For example, we might think that contracts is the law of voluntary transactions, whereas torts deals with involuntary (or unconsented-to) transactions. Of course, there is something to this idea. Face-to-face bargaining resulting in a written and signed agreement is the paradigm of a contract and also represents a paradigmatically voluntary transaction. Battery--an unconsented-to, harmful touching--represents both a clear instance of tort law and clearly involuntary transaction.
But the thesis that the law is a seamless web is not inconsistent with there being paradigm cases of conceptually distinct doctrinal fields. Rather, the idea is that these paradigm cases blend into one another through a series of small and barely noticeable steps--so that there is no sharp boundary, no "seam," between tort and contract. For example, first year law students quickly learn that not all of contract law involves agreement or bargain. "Quasi-contract" and reliance-based liability involve transactions that are involuntary or at least not fully voluntary, and this cluster of doctrine is neither clearly tort nor clearly contract. One interpretation of the seamless web metaphor is that it asserts that the law is always or almost always like that--the organizing principles of various rules fade gradually into one another, and hence, there are no sharp boundaries in the web of the law.
We might say that this first interpretation of the seamless web metaphor is ontological: "law is a seamless web" could be an assertion about the nature of doctrinal categories--they are interconnected and not isolated. On the ontological interpretation, the law is a seamless web of legal doctrines--rules, standards, and principles.
A second interpretation of the seamless web metaphor is "epistemological" rather than "ontological." What does that mean? By epistemological, I mean that we might be talking about our knowledge of the law rather than the law itself. Here the idea might be that understanding or comprehending any piece of legal doctrine requires knowledge of the surrounding areas of law and knowledge of those areas requires knowledge of yet more distant areas--so that a complete understanding of any one legal rule requires knowledge of the law as a whole.
An example may help. Suppose we are trying to understanding a rule regarding consent in criminal law. Understanding the legal concept of consent may require us to go beyond criminal law. The criminal law concept of consent may borrow from tort concepts, contract concepts, and so forth. Moreover, gaining knowledge of the criminal law doctrine of consent may require us to understand the relationship between the authority of the courts to shape the criminal law and the authority of legislatures to pass statutes that change common-law doctrines. Understanding that relationship requires knowledge of the law of statutory interpretation (which is contained in opinions on many different statutes dealing with many distinct doctrinal areas) as well as constitutional law governing the separation of powers and the nature of judicial power and legislative power. One might think that one could learn everything one needed to know in order to understand consent in the criminal law concept of consent from criminal law statutes and cases, but if the law is a seamless web, then knowledge from torts, contracts, constitutional law, and so forth may be required for a full understanding.
On the epistemological interpretation, the seamless web is a web of belief or knowledge.
The Seamless Web of Fit and Justification
Another use of the metaphor is found in the work of Ronald Dworkin. In the Lexicon entry on Fit and Justification, we explored Dworkin's idea that judges decide cases in the way that best "fits" and "justifies the law. Both "fit" and "justification" connect to the idea that the law is seamless web. So when a judge decides a "hard case," the judge's decision must "fit" the existing legal landscape. It must be coherent with the cases, statutes, constitutional provisions, and so forth. This requirement of fit is holistic. That is, the decision must fit all of the law--not just the law that is directly relevant to the case at hand. So a rule of contract law is improper if that rule would violate the constitution or authorize violation of a statutory prohibition.
Dworkin contends that legal decisions must fit the legal landscape, but that is not the end of the matter. There may be more than one ruling that would satisfy the criterion of fit. Of example, an ambiguous statutory provisions may have more than one reading that is consistent with the precedents, statutes, and other authoritative legal materials. In that case, Dworkin argues, the judge should decide the case in the way that coheres with the best justification for the law. In other words, the judge should ask, "What is the best normative theory that can justify the law as whole?" That normative theory is then used to guide the judge's decision in the particular case. Like the criterion of fit, the criterion of justification is holistic. Although judges may, as a practical matter, seek the justification for a particular area of legal doctrine, in theory the question is, "What justifies the whole of the law?" This is another sense in which the law is a seamless web--it is the whole web and not a particular strand that is the object of normative justification.
On the Dworkinian interpretation, the seamless web of the law is the object of the Herculean enterprise of producing the theory that best fits and justifies the law.
The phrase, "the law is a seamless web," is one of those big ideas that students encounter early in their law school experience. Almost every law student begins to think thoughts like, "What we are doing in contracts is connected to what we are doing in torts" or "It is all starting to fit together in one big picture." And sooner or later, these thoughts will run into the seamless web metaphor. This entry in the Lexicon is designed to give you the tools to think about the aphorism in a nuanced and rigorous way.
Related Legal Theory Lexicon Entries
- Ronald Dworkin, Hard Cases, 88 Harv. L. Rev. 1057 (1975), reprinted in Ronald Dworkin,Taking Rights Seriously (1978).
- F.W. Maitland, A Prologue to a History of English Law, 14 L. Qtrly Rev. 13 (1898).
- W. V. Quine & J. S. Ullian, The Web of Belief (McGraw Hill, 2d ed. 1978).
(This entry was last revised on December 2, 2012.)