Hohfeld’s Theory of Jural Relations

By | July 27, 2019
Hohfeld's Theory of Jural Relations

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Hohfeld’s Theory of Jural Relations | Overview

According to Hohfeld, one of the greatest obstacles in finding solutions to legal problems is the assumption that all legal concepts can be reduced to ‘rights’ and ‘duties’. Hohfeld explains exactly how several conceptions are mistaken for rights and duties.

Introduction

Legal professionals generally regard jurisprudence as a purely academic subject with no practical applications. The reason for such a belief is that jurists and writers generally propose their own understandings of legal concepts and derive intellectual pleasure from it and consider their job done. However, the different theories are only a means to an end and not the end itself. Very few writers deliberated upon the utility of their theory.

Prof. Wesley Newcomb Hohfeld always emphasized upon the important part played by analytical jurisprudence in the legal profession. He advocated that every legal professional must have a basic understanding of the concepts of analytical jurisprudence in order interpret and apply the law correctly and accurately. He believed that the task of finding solutions to legal problems becomes much easier by studying and applying concepts of analytical jurisprudence.

It must be noted that although Hohfeld strongly believed in the utility of analytical jurisprudence, he recognized the fact that it is not an all-sufficient tool for a legal professional. He emphasized upon the fact that analytical jurisprudence only paves the way to other branches of jurisprudence and only a complete understanding of jurisprudence would facilitate the quest for solutions to legal problems. One of his major contributions to the field of analytical jurisprudence has been his theory of jural relations.

Theory of Jural Relations

According to Hohfeld, one of the greatest obstacles in finding solutions to legal problems is the assumption that all legal concepts can be reduced to ‘rights’ and ‘duties’. Moreover, it is believed that the aforesaid two legal concepts are adequate enough to help solve the problems. Although prima facie it may appear to be a problem of only terminologies, Hohfeld argues that in a “closely reasoned (legal) problem” such an issue may lead to lack of clarity in thoughts and expression. He identifies eight fundamental legal concepts, namely- rights, privilege, power, immunity, no-rights, duty, disability and liability. He then proceeds to arrange them as ‘jural opposites’ and ‘jural correlatives’ and explains their practical application by giving relevant examples. The arrangement of the concepts as opposites and correlatives is as follows:

JuralRightsPrivilegePowerImmunity
OppositesNo-rightsDutyDisabilityLiability
JuralRightsPrivilegePowerImmunity
CorrelativesDutyNo-rightsLiabilityDisability

Every pair of correlatives must exist together and none of the pairs of opposites can co-exist. Thus, if a person has a right, he also has a duty. However, if a person has a privilege, he cannot have a duty. The eight Jural Relations are basic parts of the more complex legal relations that law has to deal with. Let us discuss each of the relations separately in detail.

Rights and Duties

As discussed earlier, ‘rights’ is one of the most misunderstood terms since everything is tried to be defined as a right. Words such as privilege, power and immunity are used synonymously with the term ‘rights’. However, Hohfeld is of the opinion that if we look at the statutes carefully, there is a marked distinction between the various legal concepts. Hohfeld proposes that the term rights must be confined to only that which exists corresponding to a duty. Rights and duties are correlated concepts and when a right is infringed there is always a duty that has been violated.[1]

Hohfeld uses the example of trespass to explain the correlation between rights and duties. He states that suppose if X has a land and he has the right against Y that the latter shall not enter in his land, Y also has the corresponding duty to not enter upon X’s land. He goes on to say that an appropriate synonym for the term ‘right’, in the light of the aforesaid meaning accorded to it, would be ‘claim’.

Privilege and No-rights

Hohfeld defines privilege as the jural opposite of duty. Privilege, according to him, is the negation of a duty. The negation of duty takes place only when the contents of both, the duty and privilege, are opposite to each other. For instance, a duty not to enter can be negated by the privilege of entering. Duty is the correlative of right. Similarly, privilege also has a correlative. However, there exists no particular term to explain the same, which is why, Hohfeld has decided to term it as a “no-right”.  Thus, if I have the privilege of entering into land, the correlative is a “no-right” against my entering to the land. Unlike a duty which has to be necessarily fulfilled, one may or not exercise his privilege. There is no right that is infringed in case of non-exercise of a privilege.

After discussing the meaning of the concept of privilege, Hohfeld emphasizes upon the importance of differentiating between a privilege and a right and discusses how usage of both the terms interchangeably has caused “blurring of ideas”.

Powers and Liabilities

Legal power is the jural opposite of legal disability and the jural correlative of legal liability. Power is the ability conferred upon an individual by the law to alter or create new legal relations. One can make a will of his property or can alienate his property; one can marry one’s deceased wife’s sister–all these are often termed as rights however a careful legal analysis reveals that they are powers, not rights.

A synonym for legal power is (legal) ability.[2] Legal relations may be altered by facts and circumstances which may or may not be in human control. When such facts are in control of one or more human beings, such human being is said to possess legal power. Liability is the jural correlative of power. Whenever a person exercises the power to alter existing legal relations or to create new legal relations, the person with whom such legal relations have been created or altered owes a liability to the former. Hohfeld proposes the terms “subjection” and “responsibility” as synonyms of the term “liability”. Many ‘duties’ or ‘obligations’, ignorantly stated to be so, are actually liabilities.   

Immunities and Disabilities

Immunity is the jural correlative of disability and the jural opposite of liability. In simple terms, immunity is the negation of liability. According to Hohfeld, the contrast between power and immunity is the same as the contrast between right and privilege. He states that a right is the “affirmative claim” against someone and privilege is a freedom from such an affirmative claim. Similarly, power is the “affirmative control” over a legal relation and immunity is the freedom from such control.  The jural correlative of immunity is a disability which refers to no-power. Thus, when a person exercises immunity in a legal relationship with another, the latter has no power over the legal relation.

Conclusion

Hohfeld explains exactly how several conceptions are mistaken as rights and duties. With his theory of jural relations, he has provided legal professionals with a powerful tool to help understand complex legal problems and devise effective solutions. The widespread tendency to confuse rights with liberties can lead a jurist to make conceptual errors and faulty interpretations. For example, if one believes that the right to free speech is a right (in the strict sense), but in fact it is only a liberty, then one will wrongly believe that others have duties of non-interference which are correlative to this ‘right’. The concepts of rights, privileges, powers, immunities seem to be the legal benefits granted to an individual while the four correlative terms – duty, no-right, liability and disability are the corresponding legal burdens.  


References

  1. Hohfeld, ‘Fundamental Legal Conceptions as Applied in Judicial Reasoning and Other Legal Essays’, Yale University Press (Walter Wheeler Cook ed., 1920).

[1] Lake Shore & M.S.R. Co. v. Kurtz (1894) 10 Ind. App., 60.

[2] Remington v. Parkins (1873), 10 R.I., 550, 553.

Contributed by Tejas Vasani


  1. Evolution of Liberal Theories of Justice
  2. Jurisprudence & Other Social Sciences: Evaluating the Interrelation
Author: Mayank Shekhar

Mayank is a student at Faculty of Law, Delhi University. Under his leadership, Legal Bites has been researching and developing resources through blogging, educational resources, competitions, and seminars.