The Nature of African Customary Law

By T. Olawale Elias | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VI
STATUS AND THE INDIVIDUAL

A. GENERAL INTRODUCTION

THE role of the individual in a given society depends in the last resort upon his place in it. How he fits into that place is largely conditioned by the nature of the particular society. As a matter of legal theory the reason why it is important to determine the exact position of the individual in the social structure is that only by it can we assess the extent of his rights and duties, the range of social activities in which he may or must participate, and his opportunities for personal differentiation within his community.

Our concern here is mainly with those legal aspects of his social relations which affect his acts or omissions with regard to all others within his universe of daily activity. On what the exact criteria should be for determining whether or not an individual belongs to a group or class with limited rights and duties within a given community, jurists are still in dispute. Various attempts have been made by writers on jurisprudence to define the term 'status' for legal purposes, but a satisfactory formula has yet to be devised. The trouble is that 'status' is a word which has no very precise connotation.

Thus, with respect to English law, John Austin argues 1 that the term cannot be used with exactness, but says that 'where a set of rights and duties, capacities and incapacities, specially affecting a narrow class of persons, is detached from the bulk of the legal system, and placed under a separate head for the convenience of exposition, that set of rights and duties, capacities and incapacities, is called a status'. This implies that the grouping together of those persons who are said to have a status is a mere classificatory device of the law -- which is true enough as a generalisation but which does not define how narrow the class must be or in what the rights and duties, capacities and incapacities must really consist.

____________________
1
In his "'Lectures on Jurisprudence'" ( ed. Campbell), Lects. XL- XLIV, particularly at pp.699-700 and 710.

-76-

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