21 / 1 / 2022

Hugo Grotius and Criminal Law

Hugo Law Group’s namesake is the Dutch theologian and jurist Hugo Grotius (10 April 1583 – 28 August 1645). Hugo is said to be “indisputably the supremo of Roman-Dutch jurists”[1] whom King Henry IV dubbed “the miracle of Holland”.[2] He was born in Delft in Holland and was quickly recognised as a boy genius. He started university when he was just 11 years old.[3] In his adult life he ran a successful legal practice and served as Attorney-General of Rotterdam,[4] before settling into a life of scholarship. Unlike many other influential thinkers throughout history, Hugo did not come from nobility or great wealth, but rather earned his reputation and respect through his service to the public.[5]

His father Jan was a doctor of laws and a ‘humanist’. Humanism is concerned with “reason, the power of reason and the truth established by reason”. Jan’s mode of thought clearly had a large influence on Hugo, as a devotion to reason is a central feature of Hugo’s body of work.

One of Hugo’s primary contributions to legal thinking, and the contribution which is closest to our hearts at Hugo Law Group, was his conception of natural rights. Whereas other theorists saw the natural world as chaotic and viewed law as necessary to prevent chaos,[6] Hugo thought that our personal rights – for example our right to a fair trial, to privacy, to prosperity and to opportunity – were derived naturally and the purpose of the law was simply to maintain these natural rights rather than create them. He believed that “the task of law was to make the proper exercise of rights effective for all by preventing the improper interference by some”.[7]

In criminal law some of our most cherished and important natural rights include:

  • the right to silence;
  • the right to a fair trial;
  • the right to competent and skilled legal representation; and
  • the right to be presumed innocent until and unless proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt.

Other theorists suggest that an accused person’s enjoyment of these rights depends upon the law saying so. This would mean that those who make the law have greater power to take these rights away. Hugo Grotius saw rights running much deeper than that. You are born with these rights and nothing, not even the law, should be allowed take them away.

All of us who work at Hugo Law Group are passionate about how fundamental this belief is to the community that we live in. When someone is charged with a criminal offence, it is essential that a reasoned approach is taken when looking over the evidence against them in order to best ensure that these natural rights are upheld. Just because you are born with these rights does not mean that you do not have to fight for them at times. Others may overlook them or seek to take them away. That is where a skilled and experienced criminal defence lawyer comes in.

Thomas Tiffen, Law Graduate

[1] David Miller, ‘Hugo Grotius: Born 1583 – The lasting impact of a man of the seventeenth century’ (1982) Acta Juridica 66, 66.

[2] James Brown Scott, ‘Society for the publication of Grotius’ (1917) 11(2) American Journal of International Law 408.

[3] William Knight, ‘The infancy and youth of Hugo Grotius’ (1921) 7 Transactions Grotius Society 1.

[4] Jon Miller, ‘Hugo Grotius’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2021 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archibes/spr2021/entries/grotius/>.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Knud Haakonssen, ‘Hugo Grotius and the history of political thought’ (1985) 13(2) Political Theory 239, 240.

[7] Ibid 241.