For the avoidance of doubt

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I think this is René Descartes. But ...

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And to this end they built themselves a stupendous super-computer which was so amazingly intelligent that even before its databanks had been connected up it had started from “I think, therefore I am” and got as far as deducing the existence of rice pudding and income tax before anyone managed to turn it off.

—Douglas Adams, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

A solicitor — one licensed in the practice of semantic precision, after all — can scarcely indicate unconditional surrender to the demands of the English language more clearly than by using this abominable phrase. Even as a piece of English it is hideous: what kind of fiend converts “avoid” into a noun? what kind of glass-half-empty misanthrope sets as his guiding objective the negative one of not being confusing?

The JC likes to rush in, as you know, where fools fear to tread. So let us try to achieve what Descartes could not. If you cannot avoid it, at least put a name on it. So let us — for the avoidance of doubt — thoroughly define what we mean by “doubt”:

The meaning of doubt

For the avoidance of doubt, “avoidance of doubt” shall mean the removal of (or outright refusal to face up to) any doubt, imprecision, ambiguity, double-entendre, alternative way of looking at things or other cognitive dissonance of any type, kind or nature whatsoever including, without limitation (and for the avoidance of doubt):

(A) wilful, inadvertent or innocent misunderstanding on the part of any person, whether as the result of ambiguity, syntactic confusion, metaphor or innuendo;
(B) insecurity, unease, lack of confidence or similar want of conviction about one’s ability, prospects of success or place in the universe, whether or not arising only during moments of weakness, darkness, tiredness or inebriation (and whether or not such insecurity can be easily cured by sobriety, daybreak, a decent lie-in or a hearty walk in the woods);
(C) lack of certainty as to
(a) the existence or occurrence of any other person, place or thing when not personally (or, in the case of a tree falling in a forest, hypothetically) observed; or
(b) one’s own physical existence (it being acknowledged that one’s intellectual existence as a “thinking thing” (res cogitans) is beyond rational scepticism);
(D) causal scepticism, casual scepticism or casual causal scepticism including
(a) suspicion as to the necessary connexion, brought about by their apparent conjunction, between an outcome and its putative cause; and
(b) any tendency to smugly point out others’ confusion between correlation and causation;
(E) undecidability, incompleteness, uncertainty, irrationality, strange-loopiness, circularity, superposition, the requirement in one’s cosmology for unobserved dimensions or nested universes or any other paradoxes produced by theoretical physics or mathematics now or any time in the future (whether and howsoever “future” may be defined, and irrespective of the then-prevailing space-time geometry);
(F) hesitation, procrastination, reluctance, lack of resolve or outright denial of plain facts of life; or
(G) any other analogous neurological state that either party, acting in good faith and a commercially reasonable manner, determines to have materially compromised its ability to articulate itself a sensible and practical way.

Why not say, positively, “to be clear”? I’ll tell you why not: because that would be to concede that, until now, one has not been. “You had one job”, so the saying goes, and as an officer of Her Majesty’s courts, that job was to craft your prose in a way that didn’t contain doubt in the first place. For what is the point of a contract if not to clear up the confusion so readily left by the primordial grunts, nods and inarticulate mumblings of merchants as they interact with each other?

This is how it usually plays — this is, honest to God, a real-life example:

The Chargor assigns and agrees to assign absolutely, subject to the proviso for re-assignment on redemption, all of its rights in respect of the Assigned Receivables, together with the benefit of any security granted to the Chargor thereof (and together in all cases, for the avoidance of doubt, with the proceeds thereof).

Do you feel reinvigorated with clarity and certainty, readers?

Speaking of God, it is a little known fact that Descartes’ epic metaphysical tract Discourse on the Method was a spirited attempt to define the expression for the avoidance of doubt. Descartes started by asking, “what is doubt? Can we ever be sure that what we think is doubt, is, actually, doubt? And if there is some doubt about that, how should we feel about it? Doubtful?”

Poor old Descartes never figured that out, but found himself — at least as a thinking thing — and he found God, too — well, he thought he did — along the way, so his day wasn’t totally wasted.

Yet, what is doubt? What is this existential flummery, that fogs our interior on even the sunniest day? Whence that numbing smoke that more thickly fills our mortal cockpit, day by day?

Doubt avoidance as the job description

One might make the case that the entire role of a commercial solicitor can be boiled down to “avoiding destructive doubt” that undermines commercial relationships. That’s the day job. Now there may be some nugatory regulatory cross-checking required, to be sure, but as regulation is typically designed not to be flakey or ambiguous — an ambition it does sometimes fall short of, I grant you — the job of advising on it ought not be the one that keeps home fires burning.

Not all doubt is destructive. We must contrast destructive doubt with a kind of high-functioning doubt that is healthy in a commercial relationship — that keeps the the passion aflame; keeps hearts aflutter, keeps the parties surprising each other with flowers and romantic candle-lit dinners every now and then, and is not really the solicitor’s job to poke her nose into that.[1] Removing that kind we call not doubt “avoidance” but doubt “evasion”.[2] it goes beyond the prudent optimisation of one’s commercial affairs that every merchant is entitled to. Doubt evasion is a far more serious matter.

See also


  1. I have written at length about that elsewhere.
  2. I am indebted to Graeme Johnston for this, and many other, excellent ideas.