“World of the facts” and the “world of the rules”
W. N. Hohfeld distinguishes between factual relations and legal relations, appealing to a distinction between the “world of the facts” and the “world of the rules.” On the one hand, there are changes in the world that may be independent of our will (i.e. fact sensu stricto) or manifest as a consequence or result of voluntary physical movements or a voluntary abstention (i.e. an act or omission). On the other hand, there are the aforementioned “facts” and “acts” considered as legal relations in the sense that they are at the center of imputative rules. That is, in very basic terms, because A does or omits to do X, a given consequence (S) ought to follow.
Our senses perceive the world of the facts, whilst the world of rules is accessible only to our reason, comprehensible not as a physical phenomenon, but as something abstracted from this, comprising ideas (or fictions). What, in the world of facts, is simply two people scribbling on a piece of paper is, in the world of rules, the making of a “contract.” The intentional extinguishing of a human life in the world of facts might be either a “murder” or an “self-defense” in the world of rules.
“Law” might be subjected to the same treatment. In the world of facts, the reality of law is simply the coercive speech and behavior patterns used by a populace’s most dominant figures in order to implement, maintain or discourage whatever behaviors they wish to be performed or not performed. These worlds, the world of facts and the world of rules, are not however separable from a legal point of view. The “actual” material facts relevant to a legal procedure always also have some significance in the world of rules. From the legal perspective, there is no such thing as a “simple” fact.
For Hohfeld, the factual world exhibits three different kinds of fact. The first kind, the “operative” fact, is specific in nature, referring to a particular act, and for Hohfeld facts of this kind always imply a legal relation. For example, Mary and Joe scribble on a piece of paper after Mary receives money from Joe on a certain date—say, Wednesday, October 17, 2017—and in a certain place, such as Chicago. The legal relation of “contract”, implying rights and obligations between the two, follows from the “operative” fact that Mary and Joe performed their specific act. At a different time in history, an act that was outwardly identical could be part of a different legal relation, such as a declaration of independence and the creation of a new sovereign state.
The second kind of fact, a fact “in issue”, is more generic in nature, and can only be “proved” by corresponding operative facts actually occurring. In our example, any two (or more) individuals scribbling on a piece of paper and exchanging money or goods, at any time and in any location, may be conducting a legal relation. It can be ascertained that there is a legal relation if and only if there is a specific case conforming to the rule: i.e. at least two persons performing the named actions, and consequently generating the named rights and obligations.
Finally, an “evidential” fact is one demonstrating the existence of other facts. It is “evidential” facts that appear before a court when dealing with a case. In the previous example, the outward fact of Joe’s having performed the pertinent act is an “evidential” fact when used to prove the legal fact of Joe’s obligations to Mary, under the circumstance of his having failed to fulfil such obligations. Or, in the other example, a territory’s being effectively occupied might be one “evidential” fact presented as part of an appeal for international recognition of sovereign statehood.
Ontic and components in human behavior.
Territorial Disputes and State Sovereignty. International Law and Politics (London and New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2020).
Sovereignty Conflicts and International Law and Politics: A Distributive Justice Issue (London and New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2017).
Saturday 22nd May 2021
Dr Jorge Emilio Núñez
 W.N. Hohfeld, “Some Fundamental Legal Conceptions as Applied in Judicial Reasoning,” Yale Law Journal (1913): 16-59; W.N. Hohfeld, “Fundamental Legal Conceptions as Applied in Judicial Reasoning,” Yale Law Journal (1917): 710-770.