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Is Eating People Wrong? Great Legal Cases and How They Shaped the World

by Allan C. Hutchinson

In his new book, Allan C. Hutchinson, a professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, examines eight milestone legal cases from Canadian, British, American, and Australian history to support his contention that the common law is “a living tradition of dispute resolution,” as opposed to a rigid set of codes and regulations. According to Hutchinson, these eight cases prove that the common law “is a messy, episodic, and experimental effort to respond and adapt to the contingent demands that the society brings forward.” In other words, the way a society deals with high-profile, controversial legal cases can tell us a lot about that society’s collective morals, fears, and values.

Take, for example, the case that gives the book its title. Hutchinson examines the tale of a small British sea crew in the late 19th century who, in an attempt to fend off starvation while marooned on a lifeboat off the Cape of Good Hope, decide to kill and eat a crew member. The sailors were following accepted maritime tradition and doing the only thing they could to avoid dying, so they believed they would face neither penalty nor public censure upon their return to England. What they found instead was a police officer determined to make an example of them, a sham trial, and widespread fear that if the murderers were let off easily, it would set a precedent for others who might try to avail themselves of a “legal cloak for unbridled passion and atrocious crime.” (In the end, the surviving crew members received six-month prison sentences.)

Hutchinson’s writing is mercifully free of legal jargon, and his ability to quickly and simply sketch out the historical and social context of each case is superb. His summary chapter on the state of common law in 2010 is a solid attempt to recapitulate the cases he has discussed, and provide some indication of where our legal traditions might lead in the near future. Although the material included in this chapter is strong, the summation is too brief and could have been presented in more detail.

Still, Hutchinson’s accessible and entertaining book will be appreciated by any reader wanting perspective on how the law impacts society, and vice versa.


Reviewer: Paul Challen

Publisher: Cambridge University Press


Price: $28.95

Page Count: 248 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 978-1-10700-037-7

Released: Feb.

Issue Date: 2011-4

Categories: Politics & Current Affairs