June 25, 2005
Blind-eye Knowledge?
Posted by Caroline Bradley

English judges used to refer to “Nelsonian knowledge” which is pretty much the same as wilful ignorance. In a House of Lords decision from 2002  Lord Millett said:

It is dishonest for a man deliberately to shut his eyes to facts which he would prefer not to know. If he does so, he is taken to have actual knowledge of the facts to which he shut his eyes. Such knowledge has been described as "Nelsonian knowledge", meaning knowledge which is attributed to a person as a consequence of his "wilful blindness" or (as American lawyers describe it) "contrived ignorance".

I think this is a great example of a difference between US and English jurisprudential styles - the US phrases “wilful ignorance” and “contrived ignorance” are pretty matter of fact, and good solid descriptive terms. The English “Nelsonian knowledge” is less understandable unless you know who Nelson is, but ultimately is much more colourful. It reeks of tradition and conjures up a powerful picture of the Admiral holding a telescope to his blind eye and claiming to see no ships. How disappointing to find out that English judges now seem to be using the term “blind-eye” knowledge (for example Lord Justice Mummery in this case )- a term that has neither the solid descriptive advantages of wilful ignorance nor the colour of Nelsonian knowledge. It's probably more easily understood - even those who don't know anything about Nelson have heard of turning a blind eye to an issue (and for those who have and know that people used to talk about Nelsonian knowledge some of the old resonance remains). But it's a clumsy and unattractive phrase all the same. This is one case where some legal transplanting might have been a good idea.

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