courts, law, lawyers, negotiation

What use is a lawyer anyway?

There is a place in Africa where, as a result of colonialism, geography, and local politics four nations; Botswana, Namibia,  Zambia and Zimbabwe all converge, creating a rare cartographic phenomenon called a ‘quadripoint’. The oddity  of a four way border exists because, in colonial times rivers made for easy borders. They were easy for everyone to understand, and, they didn’t have to be surveyed. The only real problem with using a river to denote a border is that the pesky things never stay still, constantly changing course and carving  out new channels. Botswana’s slice of the four way border marked in part by the  Zambezi River, for example, has shrunk to only some 150 yards of river frontage.

The problem becomes more apparent if one floats downstream from Kazungula, the actual site of the quadripoint, and onto the Chobe river where, just past the town of Kasane, Sedudu Island is encountered. The Chobe river is also an international boundary – between Botswana and Namibia- it was set by the Germans and the British as they were carving up that portion of Africa in 1890, with the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty, which stipulated the boundary to be “the thalweg of the main channel—of the Chobe River.”

Sedudu Island sits smack in the middle of the Chobe river, five square kilometres of prime grazing land with two wide channels around it, one flowing to the north,  (Namibia)and one to the south (Botswana)- so who does it belong to ? Both countries want it, Namibia to provide agricultural land for its growing population, and Botswana, for inclusion into Chobe National Park

The traditional way to resolve such a border dispute would have been armed conflict, with each side sending armed forces to claim, occupy, and defend the disputed land (and probably destroying it in the process.) But Botswana and Namibia, peace loving nations both, went a different route- they hired lawyers!

The dispute was submitted to the International Court of Justice in the Hague (best known as a soft berth for well-connected law professors looking for a European sabbatical) And the court, in proper lawyer-like fashion, tackled the dispute – taking some three years to ponder, at a leisurely pace, the proper interpretation of the 1890 treaty, the principles of international law and the empirical evidence dredged up (literally) by the lawyers for each nation.

At the end of the day, the dredging evidence held sway, and the court held that, taking into consideration the measured depth, width, and water flow of both channels, the northern channel won the title of “main Channel” and the island belonged to Botswana.

So, all in all, a victory for lawyers and the rule of law, and an armed conflict in a volatile part of the world averted. Remember that the next time someone asks  you ” what use is a lawyer anyway?)


courts, law, lawyers, negotiation, wills & estates

Fighting for the ashes

There is nothing like a day long seminar on the intricacies of wills and estates to set the mind adrift to wander freely amongst half forgotten stanzas of classical poems. It happens to me every time.

Last week it was a reference to the proper drafting of clauses pertaining to the disposition of a testators ashes (yes, we lawyers actually attend seminars about such things!) that transported me instead to the words of Lord Macaulay’s famous Horatius at the Bridge:

To every man upon this earth

  Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better

  Than facing fearful odds

For the ashes of his fathers

  And the temples of his gods?”

How indeed! In a modern world characterized by multiple marriages, and blended families, the custody and disposition of a person’s ashes takes on increased importance, if for no other reason than that their existence creates a flash point in disputes between first, second or even third families. Sometimes an Horatius is needed to guard those ancestral ashes.

I recall a  bitter, bitter case I had as a young lawyer that pitted an estranged wife against a new girlfriend (my client) over pension benefits and the like. At one point in the proceedings a demand was made upon my client to surrender the ashes of the deceased  husband/boyfriend. She responding by mixing them up in a bowl of porridge and eating them, then later in court turning to her rival to announce with a Cheshire cat grin exactly what she had done. Where is Horatius when you really need him?

Recently a marathon family mediation session at our office, involving a daughter ( by a first marriage) and a wife (by a second marriage) finally settled, with the tipping point being a concession as to the custody of the ashes of the deceased.That one issue loomed much larger to the parties than the considerable sums of money that were in play in the negotiations.

The law offers one precious little guidance when such disputes erupt  – who has the greater right to say where a person’s ashes should be scattered – the deceased’ children, or their current companion or spouse? Its the sort of issue judges are loathe to tackle- tending to growl at counsel to step out into the corridor and sort it out between themselves. The topic comes up more than you might imagine, we know, from the parade of disgruntled heirs that seek consultations with us.

I probably should have paid more attention in the seminar, and less time mentally  reciting poetry, since the best solution is advance planning and proper will drafting. If your Facebook status reads as “Its complicated”, or even if you are just working on your second marriage, as pretty much everyone is, you probably should give some thought as to whose mantle you want your ashes to live on after you pass. At the end of the day, the decision will rest with your executor, who will be bound by what you have stipulated in your will.

Remember that your cremains may have extraordinary sentimental value to your children, as well as your current companion, so it is a decision that should not be taken lightly, and once taken should be fully recorded in your will, and also discussed with your executors during you lifetime..

But, if you  simply want to piss everyone off, or really can’t decide who should have them, consider blowing your entire estate in order to have  your ashes launched into space in a space burial. There are at least two companies, Celestis and Elysium, that for a very handsome fee will launch tour cremains into outer space ! No ashes, no money left in the estate- no problem! ( Sorry Horatius, modern technology may have made you redundant)




courts, divorce, family law, law, lawyers, negotiation

Know when to hold em, know when to fold em- why lawyers hair turns grey

I once employed a junior lawyer who had come the law late in life  after a first career in academia. She viewed the practice of  law through a somewhat different lens, as a result of her previous rich and varied life experience. Some of her observations were very shrewd. Continue reading “Know when to hold em, know when to fold em- why lawyers hair turns grey”