This Article is written by Sonali Chauhan, a student of Lloyd Law College, Greater Noida. The author,  in this article, has discussed the legal maxim ‘de minis non curat lex’.

Introduction

An abbreviated form of the Latin Maxim de minimis non curat lex, “law is not concerned with small things.” A legal doctrine by which a court refuses to consider trifling things. The de minimis legal history dates back to the fifteenth century.

In a lawsuit, the de minimis doctrine is applied by a court to avoid resolving trivial matters that are not worthy of judicial scrutiny. Its application sometimes leads to an action being dismissed, especially when the only redress being sought is for a nominal sum, such as a dollar. When appropriate, the appellate courts also use the de minimis doctrine.

It is a principle of common law that stipulates that judges will not sit in judgment or take notice of extremely minor violations of the law. In accordance with this Maxim, rationale citizens would consider an appeal for trivial matters to be a complete waste of time and resources. It will bring disrepute to the judicial system.

A legal term which means too small to be meaningful or taken into account; immaterial. As a matter of policy, the law does not encourage parties to bring legal action where the impact of the breach is negligible for technical breaches of rules or agreements. De minimis exceptions are commonly included in contracts to limit the use of covenants or other restrictions so that they do not apply in circumstances where the failure to comply with the restriction has negligible impact. 

This maxim is also recognized by Section 95 of IPC

Illustration

  • A promised B they’ll go watch a movie together on Sunday. A did not appear at the theaters, however, B suffered mental trauma and agony. B sued A for damages. The court will dismiss B’s appeal here because the law does not take into account trivial issues.
  • X drives at a high speed along a dusty road and his motor wheels throw a little dust on Y, a pedestrian’s clothes. Here X, on the basis of the maxim de minimis non curat lex, is not liable for the tort as the matter is trivial in nature.
  • X walks through the Y’s land for the first time, without Y’s consent, without causing any damage to Y’s land. If for once, it is a trivial matter, and the maxim would protect him, but if X repeats, over and over again, to establish his rights on the Y’s land, it will not remain a trivial matter, and it will become a tort, and the maxim will not protect X.

Case Reference

  • In People v Durham, 915 NE 2d 40 (2009), Illinois Appellate Court Justice Robert Steigmann had Daniel Durham before him who did not like a traffic citation he had earned and sought $5 compensation:

“Litigation like this brings the judiciary into disrepute. Rational citizens (not connected with the law) would consider this appeal to be a complete waste of time and resources for all concerned. The time and money already spent on bringing this appeal amount to wasting resources. We will not be a part of further squandering.

“The maxim de minimis non curat lex retains force in Illinois and is wholly applicable in this case. This maxim applies even to constitutional claims, and its function is to place outside the scope of legal relief the sorts of injuries that are so small that they must be accepted as the price of living in society rather than make a federal case out of.”

  • In the leading case of Coward v. Baddeley, 1859, A bystander touched a fireman on the arm to draw his attention to another part of a building in which a fire raged. On a suit filed for battery by the fireman, the court held that on the basis of maxim de minimis non curat lex, the by-stander was not liable for battery.
  • In Helford v. Bailey (1849) 18 L.J.Q.B. 109, In a particular water body, the plaintiff has an exclusive right of fishing in the water. The defendant casts the net and pulls out the net from the water. The plaintiff filed it as a petition for trespassing. The plaintiff’s plea was that he had the exclusive right, and the defendant violated his right through trespassing and then fishing. There is no question whether or not he caught any fish. The defendant has thus created an act of tort against the plaintiff and, if repeated in the future, the defendant would tend to establish fishing rights. Court held the plaintiff’s view is correct, and although it was a trivial act, the court found it a tortious act and found the defendant guilty.
  • In 2004, the maxim was also on center stage, Supreme Court of Canada decision in Canadian Foundation for Youth v. Attorney General where the late Justice B. Wilson, in dissent, explained:

“The Chief Justice is rightly unwilling to rely solely on prosecutorial discretion to wipe out cases that are undeserving of prosecution and punishment. Prosecutors ‘ good judgment in eliminating trivial cases is necessary, but not sufficient for the functioning of criminal law. Legal protection against convictions must be provided for conduct that is unworthy of punishment. The judicial system is not plagued by a multitude of insignificant  prosecutions of conduct that merely fulfill the technical requirements of “a crime” (e.g., theft of a penny) because prosecutorial discretion is effective and the common law defense of de minimis non curat lex (the law is not concerned with small or trifling matters) is available to judges.

“Applying some force to another does not always suggest a criminal assault. Quite the contrary, there are many examples of incidental touch that can not be considered criminal conduct.”

“De minimis non curat lex’s common-law concept was expressed in The” Reward”(1818):

‘In applying the statutes, the Court is not bound by a strictness at once harsh and pedantic. The law allows the qualification that the ancient maxim De minimis non curat lex implies. Where there are very slight irregularities, it does not intend that the penalties should be inflexibly severe. If the deviation was a mere trifle, which would weigh little or nothing on the public interest if it continued in practice, it could be properly overlooked’.

“De minimis ‘ defense does not mean the act is justified; it remains unlawful but it goes unpunished because of its triviality.

Generally, the justification for a de minimis excuse is that: (1) it reserves the right to apply criminal law to serious misconduct ; (2) it protects the accused from the stigma of a criminal conviction and the imposition of severe penalties for relatively trivial conduct ; and (3) it reserves the right of the courts to be swamped by a huge number of trivial cases. The theory is partly based on the notion that the evil to be prevented by the section on offense has not actually occurred. This is consistent with the dual basic principle of criminal justice that there is no culpability for harmless and blameless conduct.

“In Canadian jurisprudence, the defense of de minimis has been raised in drug cases involving a small amount of the drug, in theft cases in which the value of the stolen property is very low, or in assault cases in which there is extremely minor injury or no injury ….”

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Section 95 IPC

Section 95 IPC is itself based on the maxim de minimis non curat lex (the law does not take trifles into account). This section is intended to prevent the punishment of negligible mistakes or trivial offenses. Whether the act, which amounts to an offense, is trivial would undoubtedly depend on the nature of the injury, the party’s position, the knowledge or intention with which an offending act is performed, and other related circumstances. Under this provision, these cases are considered innocent by the public, even though they fall within the letter of the penal law, not yet within its spirit, or throughout the world. In other words, the harm resulting from an offense if it is so small and trivial that no person of ordinary sense and temper would complain about such a harm.

De minimis non curat lex in India

In cases of copyright infringement, the de minimis non curat lex principle can be used as a defense in India. The important issue is whether the de minimis principle could be used in accordance with section 52 of the Indian Copyright Act as a separate defense rather than fair use. In India Tv Independent News Service Pvt. Ltd. and Ors. v. Yashraj Films Pvt. Ltd., the court discussed at length the principle of the applicability of de minimis. Before this case, the position regarding the applicability was not very clear. The facts of the case were that from a song of five stanzas five words were copied. After applying the five well-known factors commonly considered by courts in the de minimis application, the court concluded that the offense is trivial and attracts the de minimis defense.

The Supreme Court in Smt. Somawanti v. State of Punjab (AIR 1963 SC 151) observed that “they are not intended to be repeated by others or used in such a way that a book can be used, but the de minimis non curat lex principle still applies to a supposed wrong in taking part in dramatic works as well as in reproducing a part of a book.”

A principle of common law that disregards very minor transgressions of the law. For example, a description must be false “to a material degree” in order to constitute an offense under the Consumer Information Act 1978.

Case Reference

In consideration of this Latin legal maxim, the court examined the adulteration of food articles and argued that a food item unfit for human consumption can not be considered to be covered by the de minimis non curat lex rule.

Checking documents or filling in and submitting forms and returns, detouring to a public weighbridge and the like can be an inconvenience and the court can apply the maxim ‘ de minimis non curat lex ‘ unless it is shown to be unreasonable and not in the public interest.

The learned judge rightly held that the words “kept for use within the borough” meant that they were kept for normal use within the borough, and no doubt where a vehicle is kept outside the borough for normal use, an occasional user within the borough could be rejected on the basis of the principle of de minimis non curat lex.

Conclusion

The maxim suggests that to avoid costly litigation, technicalities must yield to practical common sense and justice. De minimis defenses are an understudied aspect of the law, appearing more frequently in legal practice than in legal theory but rarely gaining in either type of extensive analysis. This has led to an unfortunate state of affairs where one term is applied to a set of practices that, at best, are only loosely linked.

This is a hypothetical case that will allow examining the concept of de minimus non curat lex. It will also show that this is an equitable remedy and that it is still in a flux state. Usually, it is used to avoid further litigation and further review of appeals. It is a fair remedy in which the trial judge has complete and absolute control, as well as discretion over its use and application. However, there appear to be no specific terms for its application other than the individual judge’s subjective opinions.

Not all courts agree when and how the doctrine should be applied. Before making a decision to apply “de minimis,” the courts consider the wrong and the amount of harm involved. The maxim is said to be a pure “exercise of judicial power and nothing else.”  (State v. Park), 525 P2d 586 (Haw. 1974)

 

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