Scottish Session Papers and the Bar Exam

In the summer, the Law Library provides a quiet study space for recent graduates who are preparing to take the bar exam. Studying for the bar can be a stressful, all consuming experience, and one possible side effect is the tendency to see bar exam fact patterns everywhere. For those suffering from this condition, it becomes nearly impossible to unwind by watching a procedural drama (crim pro!), a soap opera (family law!), or even an infomercial (products liability!).

In the spirit of solidarity, we’ve been considering how the Law Library’s Scottish Court of Session Papers may resonate with the subjects tested on the bar exam. The library’s collection of Session Papers features case materials presented in Scotland’s highest civil court from 1759 to 1834. Despite their origins in a foreign legal system, the documents raise many issues familiar to modern bar-takers. They also feature memorable and significant historical facts.

The case of Birnie and Co. v. Weir, 3 Shaw’s Dig. 1732 [1800], aff’d [1800] 4 Pat. App. 144 (Scot.), presents a colorful example. Samuel Birnie developed a new, “British” form of a bleaching agent called potash. His company claimed in printed materials that this British potash had been “found to answer every purpose in bleaching, &c. equal to the best American pot.” Helen Weir, a bleacher, ordered several casks of the potash for her business but later refused to pay her bill; Birnie brought suit to collect on the account.

Why didn’t Helen Weir pay? According to her lawyers, the British potash contained “a radical latent defect.” Materials bleached with the potash initially looked white, but they turned a reddish or bluish color after being exposed to the air. Because the problem wasn’t immediately apparent, Weir had shipped defective products to her customers—including some whose white thread turned red after being sewn into the seam! Weir argued that the potash was unfit for the purpose of bleaching, and that Birnie should be held responsible for his warranty comparing British potash to American potash. In addition to withholding payment, she raised a claim for damages based on harm to her business and her reputation.

In response, Birnie pointed out that Weir had ordered the potash in three different shipments, all of which were consumed, and that she hadn’t complained until Birnie demanded payment. In Birnie’s view, these facts were decisive. Further, he maintained that British potash was suitable for use in certain stages of the bleaching process (just like American potash); the problem was Weir’s unskillful use of the product. Birnie also explained that the statement comparing British potash to American potash hadn’t been used to advertise the product or to establish its character. Instead, it was contained in “directions” given to customers after they purchased the potash.

Petition of William Alexander and sons (1772)
Petition of William Alexander and sons (1772)

It’s striking how the case materials in Birnie address some of the same questions posed by modern bar examiners: What constitutes a warranty? What happens if there’s a non obvious problem with the seller’s product? How should damages be calculated? The vivid facts and fascinating characters in Birnie bring these issues to life.

Another case in our collection, Colville v. Lauder, [1800] Mor. 1 (Scot.), resembles a multi subject exam fact pattern combining estate law and conflict of law issues. Again, though, the facts matter. Colville is a darker story than Birnie, recounting an ill-fated personal history set against the backdrop of British colonialism.

Shortly after marrying Jean Colville, David Lauder left Scotland under indenture to work on the island of St. Vincent. While living there, he wrote home to describe his experiences with sickness and violence (probably the Second Carib War). David was released from his indenture as a result of the war.

Hoping that a cooler climate would ease his health problems, he reserved enough money for passage to New York and sent his remaining savings to his father, William. David asked William to secure the money in case he returned to Scotland, and wrote that if he was not heard from again, “the money is either at [father’s] or my dear mother’s disposal.” During the next year, David traveled to New York and then Canada, where he was drowned while bathing in the Saint Lawrence River. James Watson, another Scotsman living abroad, wrote that he had “dived for [David] for two hours, and at last brought him up from twenty-four feet [of] water” to bury him. According to Watson, David’s effects included letters stating that he was going home the next year.

David’s death led to the multi-part legal quandary we mentioned earlier. William Lauder kept the money that David had sent him, claiming that his son’s letter was a valid will, and David’s widow Jean Colville sued to recover a share of the funds. Colville’s lawyer argued that it didn’t matter whether the letter was a will, because a choice of law question could resolve the case: Was the claim governed by the law of Scotland or the law of England (which regulated British territories)? Under Scots law, David’s widow was entitled to half of his moveable estate, notwithstanding any will. Under English law, a will could cut off her inheritance completely. Unsurprisingly, Colville argued that Scots law controlled.

Colville's Answer
Answers of Jean Colville.

The Scottish Court of Session Papers show that for hundreds of years, life has been full of messy, surprising, tragic disputes that need to be resolved using legal principles. And like the practice of law, our documents occupy a space where human stories meet the overarching principles used to organize society. The collection provides a rich historical record, insight on past approaches to the law—and evidence that, for better or worse, questions like the ones posed on the bar exam have mattered to everyday people for hundreds of years.  (Bar-takers, please take note: Despite the similarity of the issues raised, the Court of Session may not have reached the result you’d expect based on modern state law.)

Good luck to those preparing for the exam!

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Kate Boudouris

Research, Instruction & Outreach Librarian, Arthur J. Morris Law Library

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