Professor Nigam Nuggehalli on Why to Study Jurisprudence

Letters to law students #24 ‘why should you study jurisprudence?’

My dear law students

It is that time of the year when you will study jurisprudence or the philosophy of law. It is also around this time that I am asked the inevitable question: why is jurisprudence a mandatory course in the curriculum? I doubt if the philosophy of medicine is mandatory in medical schools or if the philosophy of engineering is mandatory in engineering schools. If so, why should law students alone suffer the ignominy of studying the philosophy of law under compulsion?

I used to answer this question by waxing eloquent about philosophy, the love of wisdom and how interesting it would be for students to understand the true nature of anything – the stars, the oceans, the earth and, of course, the law. But this kind of answer only energizes those law students who enjoy reading Lord Denning. The more hard nosed ones become even more hard nosed after hearing this answer. I have now an even better reason for you, one that I should have emphasized right from the beginning.

You will agree with me that the manner in which our judges make their decisions is of immense practical value. This is even more important when we consider the judicial function rather than any particular judicial institution. Considered broadly, the judicial function is exercised in various  contexts, like that exercised by a government official in granting or cancelling licenses or an independent director on the corporate board or even that of a judge in an inter collegiate fashion contest.

Here’s the interesting question: what kind of standards do people apply when they perform the judicial function? Contrary to what many students believe, there is no clear answer to this question. HLA Hart, the first brilliant legal philosopher you will study in your course, thought that the standards that judges apply are supplied by lawmakers (for example, the parliament). The set of rules emanating from the lawmakers may not fit all the situations that judges consider, in which cases judges use their discretion to fill in the gaps in the law. So far, in my experience, most students intuitively agree with this analysis.

Ronald Dworkin, another brilliant legal philosopher you will study in this course, challenged Hart.  He discussed a famous New York case called Riggs v Palmer. A person killed his grandfather and as it so happened, was entitled to inherit his grandfather’s property after his death. The court disallowed the inheritance on the principle that a person should not benefit from his own wrongs. In another case, Henningsen v Bloomfield Motors, a manufacturer of automobiles tried to rely on an exclusionary contract clause that limited claims from car owners if the cars turned out to be faulty. The court denied the effect of such exclusionary clauses on the basis of the principle that manufactures of automobiles had special duties of care towards their customers.

Dworkin argued that the principles in play in these two cases did not look like the rules described by Hart.  The judges certainly thought they were applying binding legal principles, and not exercising discretion when the rules run out. But where did these legal standards come from, if they were not established in any statute or precedent? This is not a question to be considered as a nice puzzle on rainy evenings (why are sunsets so beautiful?) but has important implications for our lives. Judges fine people and send people to jail. We better have a handle on the standards that they purport to apply.

Dworkin’s challenge to Hart has not been answered satisfactorily yet. So, when you study the nature and origin of legal standards in the jurisprudence course, please remember you are entering a live debate, not a mausoleum. Your inquiry into the nature of legal standards will take you far into the role of the law and the relevance of state coercion. If you study jurisprudence with an open mind and with diligence, you will come out of this course with a renewed interest in the relationship between state, society, politics and justice. You would have been exposed to some of the best writing in the law, and you will learn to appreciate why lawyers, however hard nosed they might consider themselves to be, are actually philosophers at heart.

Nigam Nuggehalli


School of Law

BML Munjal University

Note: This letter has been reproduced after taking Professor Nuggehalli’s consent.

To read more from the series on ‘Letter to Law Students’, you could check out Professor Nigam Nuggehalli’s LinkedIn page here.  You could read more about Professor Nigam Nuggehalli here

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