The cases that changed Britain: 1917-1954 (Part III)

The cases that changed Britain: 1870-1916 (Part II)
June 22, 2008
The cases that changed Britain: 1955-1971 (Part IV)
July 4, 2008
The cases that changed Britain: 1870-1916 (Part II)
June 22, 2008
The cases that changed Britain: 1955-1971 (Part IV)
July 4, 2008
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The cases that changed Britain: 1917-1954 (Part III)

From Times By Gary Slapper

Bowman and others v Secular Society Ltd
May 15, 1917

This case was of considerable historic significance in supporting the freedom of a citizen to leave his wealth to whom he wanted. It is also solidified a great principle of British freedom of expression by ensuring that no legal disadvantage fell on those with dissentient ideas. The House of Lords upheld the lawfulness of a bequest to a company whose aim was opposing Christian dogma. In making this decision the Lords overruled precedents going back over 50 years. The next-of-kin of a testator challenged the bequest to the society on the grounds that its objects were unlawful. The House of Lords decided that there is nothing contrary to the policy of the law in an attack on or a denial of the truth of Christianity or any of its fundamental doctrines, provided that such an attack or denial is couched in temperate language and did not constitute blasphemy as defined by the common law.

Phillips v Brooks Ltd
April 12, 1919
This is a classic case in the field of contract law. It was an alarm bell for any star-struck retailers prone to be a bit too impressed by any display self-importance. A man bought pearls and rings worth £3,000 from a jeweller’s shop in Wardour Street, London after passing himself off as a wealthy gentleman from St James’s Square. The cheque was dishonoured — the man was in fact an imposter named North, who pawned one of the rings for £350. After the jeweller sued, the court held that as the jeweller intended to make a contract with the man in the shop, even though he was not who he said he was, the property had legally passed to him. North was legally entitled to sell it to a pawnbroker. The jeweller’s attempt to get the ring back failed.

R v Hurst and other Justices of Sussex, ex party McCarthy
November 10, 1923

This is, indirectly, one of the most often quoted cases in English law. It was famous for the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Hewart’s comment: “There is no doubt that it is not merely of some importance, but of fundamental importance, that justice must be done, and be manifestly and undoubtedly seen to be done”. A driving conviction was quashed because one of the magistrates’ clerks had an apparent conflict of interest: he worked for a law firm that acted for someone who was suing the driver in another case. No-one suggested the clerk behaved improperly, but it looked bad to have someone involved who was potentially partisan. The case cements a principle of fundamental significance to a civilised legal system: namely that all judicial processes must not just be fair but must never even be seen to raise a suspicion of unfairness. Public confidence in the law demands nothing less.

Parkinson v College of Ambulance Ltd and Harrison
August 1, 1924

In the realms of the oxymoronic, “buying honour” must sit alongside “open secret” and “larger half”. But the attempt to purchase honours is not a recent development in British public life. In this case, the law set a clear precedent in how it should be treated. The secretary of a charity fraudulently promised Colonel Parkinson a knighthood if he made a large donation. Parkinson, accordingly, gave £3,000. But after he didn’t receive a knighthood, he sued the charity and its secretary for breach of contract. It was held that a contract for the purchase of an honourable title is an improper and illegal contract since it is against public policy. As Parkinson knew he was entering into an improper and illegal contract he could not recover the money. A year later, such activity was also criminalised by statute law.

R v Betts and Ridley
December 20, 1930

Victor Betts and Herbert Ridley agreed to rob a man. The plan was simple: Betts would push him to the ground and seize his bag while Ridley waited in an escape car round the corner. But Betts struck the man with such force that the man died. They were both convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Ridley’s appeal failed. It was held that to be convicted it was not necessary that an accessory should be actually present when the offence was carried out. If the main criminal actor departed wholly from the scope of the agreement then he alone would be liable. But where the principal substantially complied with the plan and there was a departure only in the time, place or manner of execution of it, then the person soliciting the offence would be guilty of that offence, either as an “accessory before the fact” if he were absent and as a principal if he were present or nearby.

Tolley v J S Fry & Sons Ltd
March 24, 1931
This colourful case helped put advertisers on guard against unlawfully exploiting the reputation of public figures without their consent. It encompassed several elements cherished in Britain — sport, chocolate and scandal — and so its legal principle became widely understood. The defendant, a chocolate manufacturer, published an advertisement featuring a caricature of Cyril Tolley, a prominent amateur golfer. It depicted him playing golf with a packet of their chocolate protruding from his pocket. Pictured with him was a caddy, who likened the excellence of the chocolate to that of Tolley’s drive. The ad was published without Tolley’s knowledge or consent. He sued, alleging it constituted a libel. He said the ad was understood to mean that he had permitted his portrait to be exhibited for the purpose of advertising chocolate and that that he’d done so for gain and reward. This would mean that he’d prostituted his reputation as an amateur golf player for advertising purposes. He was awarded £500.

Bell and another v Lever Brothers Ltd and others
December 16, 1931

This case on directors’ contracts caused quite a stir at the time. It concerned what happens when both sides to a contract make a mistake. Lever Brothers, the largest shareholder in the Niger Company, appointed Ernest Bell chairman of Niger’s board at a salary of £8,000 a year. It appointed Walter Snelling as vice-chairman at a salary of £6,000 a year. Behind the company’s back, the two executives speculated in cocoa, a commodity in which Niger dealt, which would have justified both being sacked. But it was for other reasons that their appointments were later cancelled. Unaware of their breaches of duty, Lever agreed to pay Bell £30,000 and Snelling £20,000 — a lot of money at the time — as compensation for terminating their services. Later, Lever said it would have sacked them without pay if it had been aware of their breaches of duty. The company tried to get the money back but the House of Lords said the company’s mistake wasn’t sufficiently fundamental to allow it to avoid the contractual obligation to pay the compensation.

Fardon v Harcourt-Rivington
January 22, 1932
An important ruling on the law of negligence involving cars, pets, shopping and gore. Mr and Mrs Harcourt-Rivington of Langhan Street, London, left their car outside an entrance of Selfridges off Oxford Street. They left their large Airedale dog in the car while they popped in to the department store. For reasons unknown, the dog became excited and started jumping around, barking furiously. It pawed the rear glass window, shattering the window pane. Improbably, a shard of glass flew off into the eye of a passer-by, Oliver Fardon. Fardon’s eye had to be removed. Were the couple liable to pay compensation? The House of Lords ruled that people should take care to guard against “realistic possibilities” but are not liable if we fail to guard against “fantastic possibilities”. The accident in this case, the judges ruled, was a “fantastic possibility”.

Donoghue v Stevenson
May 27, 1932

Among lawyers and law students this is probably the most famous case in British history. Never have so many cases flowed from a single formulation of law. On August 26, 1928, May Donoghue sat in the Wellmeadow Café in Paisley and drank the defendant manufacturer’s ginger beer, which her friend had purchased for her. The bottle contained the decomposed remains of a snail. After drinking it, Donoghue suffered from shock and severe gastro-enteritis. As she could not sue under contract law since it was her friend, and not she, who had purchased the drink, she brought a claim on the alleged negligence of the ginger beer manufacturer. The case settled for £200. Lord Atkin, hearing the case, stated: “You must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbour.” Seventy-five years on, a mountain of cases has arisen from actions brought by citizens under this principle. Negligence cases in their millions have been brought against manufacturers, drivers, employers, government departments, doctors, local authorities, accountants, and even lawyers.

Haynes v G Harwood & Son
April 28, 1934

This classic case concerned the duty a negligent person owes to someone who acts to rescue a victim of the negligence. The claimant, Thomas John Haynes, was a Metropolitan police constable. On August 24, 1932, a two-horse van belonging to the defendants was left unattended in Paradise Street, Rotherhithe. The driver had put a chain on one of the wheels (which was afterwards found broken), but for some reason, possibly because of a stone having been thrown at them by a boy, the horses bolted along the street, which was frequented by children. Constable Haynes was on duty inside the local police station. Seeing the runaway horses with a van attached coming down the street, he rushed out and eventually stopped them, sustaining a severe injury. It was decided that the defendants’ employee was guilty of negligence in leaving the horses unattended in a busy street and that the constable’s injuries were the natural and probable consequence of their negligence. He won £350 in damages.

Duncan v Jones
October 17, 1935

In depressed economic times and with growing social discontent, the law dealt firmly with people wanting to exercise free speech. This case curtailed the extent of freedom of speech for decades. On May 25, 1933, Katherine Duncan addressed a meeting in Nynehead Street in London’s New Cross, opposite the entrance of an unemployed training centre. The meeting led to a disturbance at the training centre and the superintendant called the police. A year later, about 30 people including Duncan held another meeting in the same street. Duncan was about to mount a box placed in the roadway when the chief constable told her that the congregation had to move to another street 175 yards away. She ignored him and began to step on the box to address the meeting; she was swiftly arrested and prosecuted for unlawfully and wilfully obstructing the police officer when in the execution of his duty. There was no obstruction of the highway except for the box and the presence of the people surrounding it. Neither Duncan nor any of the persons present at the meeting had either committed, incited or provoked a breach of the peace. Nevertheless, Duncan was convicted and fined. Her appeal was dismissed.

Sim v Stretch
July 23, 1936
Although resembling a vivid 1930s theatrical farce, this case decided an important point of defamation law, clarifying how much can be read into certain types of communication. Herbert Stretch’s housemaid left his service and returned to work for another man, Sim, for whom she had previously worked. She re-entered Sim’s service on April 12, 1934. On that date, Sim sent a telegram to Stretch informing him that “Edith has resumed her service with us today. Please send her possessions and the money you borrowed, also her wages to Old Barton.” Stretch claimed these words were defamatory and that Sim was insinuating he had money troubles that forced him to borrow from his housemaid. It was held that the words complained of were not reasonably capable of a defamatory meaning and he lost the action.

Warner Brothers Pictures Inc v Nelson
October 20, 1936

This case formulated an important part of contract law. It said that an injunction will be granted to stop someone breaking a contract and going to work for a rival company if the term in their contract was not so severe as to face them with starvation unless they kept the contract. Before she was famous, the film star Bette Davis (original name Bette Nelson) signed a contract with Warner Brothers for one year. The studio had the option of extending it and Davis agreed she would not undertake other film work without its written consent. When she tried to make a film with another company, Warner sought an injunction. The court granted an injunction for the remainder of the contract or for three years, whichever was the shorter. Davis wasn’t faced with the option “work for Warner or starve” because she could work for other companies so long as she didn’t make films. In other words, the contract was not too oppressive, so she was bound by it.

Associated Provincial Picture Houses Ltd v Wednesbury Corporation
November 11, 1937
This was a landmark case in the development of judicial review. A local council had granted a licence to the claimants for them to open their cinema on Sundays. But the council imposed the condition that children under 15 were not to be allowed in. The company said that was “unreasonable” and therefore beyond the powers of the council. The Court of Appeal found that the condition was reasonable — however, Lord Greene, the Master of the Rolls, stated that in certain circumstances courts could declare administrative or governmental actions as unauthorised or unreasonable. His words crystallised into a hallowed and frequently cited proposition. He said the courts couldn’t simply substitute their own opinion for that of the public body or official but they could invalidate a decision if it had been made in an unreasonable way. To be unreasonable, the decision would have to be one in which an authority had “taken into account matters which it ought not to take into account”, or, conversely, has “refused to take into account or neglected to take into account matters which it ought to take into account”. The number of judicial review cases has risen dramatically from just a few a year in the 1950s, through 500 a year in the 1980s, to about 6,000 a year now.

Liversidge v Anderson
November 4, 1941

A graphic instance of a legal decision being influenced by the social environment in which it takes place. A ministerial power to make subjective judgments about a citizen’s freedom was permitted in this controversial House of Lords’ decision. During the Second World War, Robert William Liversidge of St James’s Close in London’s Regents Park, who was in Brixton Prison at the time of the action, challenged the legality of his incarceration. There was a defence regulation providing that a Secretary of State could make orders for the detention of people whom he had “reasonable cause” to believe were “of hostile origin or associations” and in need of subjection to preventative control. Liversidge was such a suspect. The regulation was interpreted as establishing a subjective test of reasonableness. In other words, it all depended on what the minister thought was reasonable, not what an outside, objective person might think. To establish the invalidity of a detention order, a detainee would have to prove that the Secretary of State did not genuinely believe he had reasonable cause. The case is also famous for a very powerful and florid dissenting speech from Lord Atkin, who said that even during war a minister should not have uncontrolled powers of imprisonment: “In this country, amid the clash of arms, the laws are not silent.”

Young v Bristol Aeroplane Company
July 29, 1944

This case was originally about a man, Young, who lost three fingers in an industrial injury involving unfenced machinery. But the judgment is important because it explains the circumstances in which the Court of Appeal can go against one of its earlier decisions. In addition to saying something about how factory machinery should work, the case sets the law on how the legal machinery should work. It decides, for example, that the Court of Appeal is not bound to follow a previous decision of its own if there are two earlier Court of Appeal decisions inconsistent with one another. The Master of the Rolls, Lord Greene, said the court is not bound to follow a decision of its own if it is satisfied that the decision was “given per incuriam [through an error], for example, where a statute or rule having statutory effect which would have affected the decision was not brought to the attention of the earlier court”.

Joyce v The Director of Public Prosecutions
February 2, 1946

This case settled a key point in the definition of the oldest statutory offence in England: treason. William Joyce broadcast fascist propaganda on the radio from Germany. He was popularly known as “Lord Haw-Haw”. The phrase had been used by Daily Express radio critic Jonah Barrington to describe the nasal tone of another broadcaster of propaganda, but eventually came to be associated with Joyce. He was an American citizen who moved to Ireland, then England and who got a British passport by falsely stating he was born in Britain. During the war, Joyce was captured by the British, brought back to England and charged with high treason. The charge said that, while owing allegiance to the Crown, he had “adhered to the King’s enemies”. But did Joyce remain under a duty of allegiance to the Crown as alleged? The jury said yes and so did the House of Lords. He was hanged at Wandsworth prison.

Hibbert v McKiernan
April 23, 1948
An early 17th-century proverb had it that “possession is nine points of the law”. This case is a good illustration of those important property disputes arising in every age that require clarification of the law. Harold Hibbert trespassed on some golf links owned by the Reddish Vale Golf Club and helped himself to some abandoned golf balls. In this appeal, it was held that he had been rightly convicted of larceny (the old name for theft) by the magistrates at Stockport. As owners of the land, members of the golf club had a prioprietary right to goods left on the course.

Bolton v Stone
May 11, 1951

On August 9, 1947, Miss Bessie Stone was hit by a cricket ball while standing near her front gate on Beckenham Road in Manchester, 100 yards from the neighbouring cricket pitch fence. She sued the cricket club and lost. Balls had been hit over the 17-foot-high fence only about six times in the previous 30 years and never hit anyone. The House of Lords said that to get compensation for an injury, it had to be caused by something that could be anticipated by a reasonable man, whereas the risk taken by the club was limited and not unreasonable. The law requires citizens to be careful toward one another but cases such as this have been helpful in determining just how far we are permitted to take risks.

Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain v Boots Cash Chemists (Southern) Ltd
July 17, 1952, February 6, 1953
Changes in the economy require the law to adapt to suit new circumstances. This case is a classic instance of adaptation. The advent of supermarket-style shops mean that it became necessary to determine where in the shop a contract of sale was finalised: when a customer places goods in their shopping basket or at the till? The Boots store in Edgware, London had been accused by the Pharmaceutical Society of selling prescription medicines to the public without the supervision of a registered pharmacist, as was legally required. On April 13, 1951, two people (acting for the Pharmaceutical Society) bought medicines containing a tiny amount of strychnine and codeine. That would have been an illegal sale if not supervised by a pharmacist. Was it in fact supervised? The Pharmaceutical Society said it wasn’t supervised as the customers bought the products when they put them in their wire baskets. But the Court of Appeal ruled that the point of sale was at the till rather than when the customer puts something in their basket or trolley. As there was a registered pharmacist at the till, Boots had committed no offence.


  1. Keith Crossland says:

    Concering the case of Walters v WH Smith & Son. October 30, 1913.

    The artcile is slightly misleading, but if someone was to act on it it could land then with a false imprisonment and assualt claim. The article states:

    “Today, you can make a citizen’s arrest only if you satisfy a string of requirements, including that that there were reasonable grounds for your suspicion and that you had reasonable grounds for believing that it was necessary to prevent injury, property damage or loss.”

    That is misleading because that only applies if an alleged offence is in the process of being committed. If the offence is in the past, for example in R v Self 1992 CA, there must be the crime for the arrest to be lawful, reasonable suspicion is not enough. In the case of R v Self it involved a possible theft from a shop, with the arrest taking place outside the shop. It also stops you from arresting your neighbour because he turns up in posh car, and you think you know that he could not afford it. You might have reasonable suspicion that he must have robed a bank, but perhaps he just got lucky on the lotto. If this was allowed to happen then all sorts of jealous neighbours would be arresting each other.

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