I know I've seen articles on this, but I can't find any. I'm trying to get a rule or explanation for when to use "have" or "had" when describing something that happened in the past. My understanding was that "Have" or "had" connotes continuing events (or the similar). I find that people n my profession (legal) use "have" and "had" very frequently when it only adds additional words.

For example (since I'm a lawyer, I'll use lawyer examples):

The parties agreed to . . . or The parties have agreed to . . .

The Court found that . . . or The Court has found that . . . .

No one objected to . . . . or No one has objected to . . .

Plaintiff investigated the facts . . . or Plaintiff has investigated the facts . . .

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    In all your examples the addition of 'have' implies that the occurrence was recent. You don't supply any examples using 'had', but that would be the pluperfect tense. "As the parties had agreed on the terms, a formal contract was drawn up". Oct 30 '19 at 16:24
  • The past simple gives more a sense of narrative, almost chattiness. This happened. That happened. The perfect gives more a sense of statement of completion, and comes across as being more formal. This was done. The Court has found that.... Oct 30 '19 at 16:47
  • @KateBunting: no, it doesn't necessarily imply that the occurrence was recent, just that it has present consequences. This might be recency, but it might have other interpretations. See my answer.
    – Colin Fine
    Nov 30 '19 at 23:41

In legal parlance, have + past participle is generally used. Since it is present tense, the writer need not worry about changing the tense of subsequent verbs.

  • I don't understand the point you are making. Can you give an example of what you mean?
    – Colin Fine
    Nov 30 '19 at 23:42
  • @Colin Fine: He has confessed that he is used to consume alcohol. (Tense is similar in both the clauses.) He confessed that he was used to consume alcohol. (The main clause is in past tense, hence the tense change in the succeeding clause.) Thus, to avoid having to change the tense, many people use present perfect tense in the main clause as in the first example.
    – Ram Pillai
    Dec 1 '19 at 2:12
  • I still don't get it. He is used to consume is not grammatical in my English anyway, but if I substitute consuming for consume, you can use present in the first because the matrix verb is perfect (and has present relevance) and not in the second because it doesn't. I don't see where "changing the tense" comes in.
    – Colin Fine
    Dec 1 '19 at 9:54

The use of the present perfect (have X-ed) in English is nearly always optional, in the sense that either the present perfect or the past (X-ed) can be used about exactly the same objective events. The difference is in how the speaker is choosing to present the temporal structure of the events.

Using the present perfect asserts the present relevance of the past events referred to. Exactly what that present relevance means can vary. It might mean that the activities are continuing into the present. It might mean that the events are very recent. Or it might mean that the events have consequences in the present.

It is the last of these meanings which is most relevant in your examples. Since these are legal documents, not just stories, one presumes that whatever events are mentioned (the parties agreeing, the Court ruling etc.) have consequences in the present, or they would not have been mentioned.

If a legal document contains a story (eg a witness's statement) it is more likely to contain simple pasts (I saw... He went .... She said ...) Only where there is some present relevance is that likely to contain a perfect. (eg On that occasion I saw the accused do XXX. [simple past]. I have never seen him do XXX before or since [present perfect, because the period over which the witness might have seen this continues to the present].

You say it only adds additional words, but that is not all it does. While it is not likely to change the meaning materially, it might. For example the parties agreed that... treats their act of agreeing as a completed action, which might imply that their agreement is not longer in force. (It doesn't necessarily imply that, but the choice of a simple past might be significant). The parties have agreed ... strongly suggests that the agreement is still in force, even if it was some time ago.

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