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What can lawyers learn from 1940s literature?

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What can lawyers learn from 1940s literature?

West Australian-based barrister Tom Percy QC argues there are legal lessons to be learned from prominent literature from nearly 80 years ago.

Speaking to Lawyers Weekly ahead of his address to the Australian Lawyers Alliance national conference, held over this past weekend, Mr Percy said George Orwell’s 1984 and Albert Camus’ L’Estranger offer lessons for legal professionals of today.

“I have often drawn back to aspects of both these novels – George Orwell’s 1984 and Albert Camus’ L’Estranger – by my experiences in legal practice, which caused me some trepidation and a sense of déjà vu as to the uncanny perspicacity of the tacit warnings that had been laid out in both those great works of fiction,” he explained.

“The relevance of the issues raised by them has continued to haunt me as developments in the law continue to vindicate the unspoken messages that flow through both these epic stories.”


Theme such as surveillance, the concept of the ‘unperson’, thought crime and what constitutes probative evidence of guilt flow through these novels and have parallels in modern legal practice, he posited.

“In the eighty odd years since Camus and Orwell wrote their respective novels, the legal and social landscape has changed in many ways. In some ways, beyond recognition. In some respects, those changes have been for the better, but in some ways definitively for the worse,” he continued.

“As strange as it may seem, the lessons to be learnt from past forecasts as to the direction in which the law might be heading do not invariably come from great jurists, nor from politics, but sometimes from the great works of literature.”

Lawyers, sadly, do not have a mortgage on wisdom, perspicacity or common sense, he mused.

“The lessons to be gleaned from writers of fiction like Orwell and Camus are both interesting and salutary ones. But they hardly stand alone,” he noted.

“The warnings from the immortal works of authors such as Dickens, Kafka, Steinbeck, Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn and even John Mortimer, to name just a few, should never be ignored.”

“If we do so, history shows we do so at our peril.”

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