July 31, 2004

Chattels personal, personal chattels, and (fresh) fish

Margaret Marks once again demonstrates that my ignorance of legal terminology is even more profound than I had imagined, by exploring the distinction between chattels personal and personal chattels.

I await with interest her judgement on the point raised by this exchange which seems to involve a novel instance of the sorites paradox:

Mr. Alexis FitzGerald: ... There is another point I should like to raise. It is, perhaps, a question I should be able to answer myself. Do we have a definition of personal chattels which entirely, completely and satisfactorily excludes what is intended to be free from the particular transaction which is to be avoided? I do not find anything in the Principal Auctioneers Act which this Bill is amending. While in that Act there is no definition of a personal chattel there is a reference to some particular type of goods which are excluded from the requirement of a licence. If an auction of fresh fish, for example, is not to be the subject of [419] the requirement of the provisions of subsection (1) of section 6, has it to be there spelled out that, as such, it is not a personal chattel? At what stage does it become a personal chattel? When it reaches your dish or when it has been extracted from the sea——

If I understand Dr. Marks' reasoning, fish (once caught) are always chattels personal (since they are not real), but may or may not be personal chattels (since they may or may not be things like "toilet articles, bags, umbrella"). Is the crucial question then whether a fish becomes like a toothbrush by virtue of being portable, or by virtue of being inedible? I look forward to the day that Margaret's readers in the Irish legal profession come back on line and clear this up. Or at least provide further elaboration, in the ancient Irish tradition of exact but somewhat puzzling regulations concerning fish:

''For digging in a churchyard to steal from it, for making a dam in a stream to take an excess of fish, or for stealing a hunter's tent, your cattle will be taken to the animal pound for three to ten days, depending on the circumstances."

For some further discussion of "legal regimes based on sharp but unpredictable distinctions among similar objects ", see the quote from Eben Moglen in this Language Log post from last fall.

[Update: the Irish are still offline, apparently, but Margaret Marks created, posted and explained this diagram of the ontology of property in English law:


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 31, 2004 11:31 AM