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Famous and Leading Court Cases - UK and Ireland

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Famous Court Cases

United Kingdom and Ireland

The object of this project is to link GENi profiles of people involved in famous and/or leading court cases to examples listed below, and to add more such cases to the existing lists as profiles are found.

Leading court cases

In present day common law legal systems, precedents that determine a significant new legal principle or concept, or otherwise substantially affect the interpretation of existing law are called Leading court decisions. 'Leading case' is commonly used in the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth jurisdictions instead of 'landmark case' as used in the United States.

See also Legal Cases that Changed America

In Commonwealth countries, a reported decision is said to be a leading decision when it has come to be generally regarded as settling the law of the question involved. In 1914, Canadian jurist Augustus Henry Frazer Lefroy said "a 'leading case' [is] one that settles the law upon some important point." [Augustus Henry Frazer Lefroy, Leading Cases in Canadian Constitutional Law. Toronto: Carswell, 1914, p. v.]

A leading decision may settle the law in more ways than one.

  1. Distinguishing a new principle that refines a prior principle, thus departing from prior practice without violating the rule of stare decisis;
  2. Establishing a “test” (that is, a measurable standard that can be applied by courts in future decisions), such as the Oakes test (in Canadian law) or the Bolam test (in English law).
  3. Sometimes, with regard to a particular provision of a written constitution, only one court decision has been made. By necessity, until further rulings are made, this ruling is the leading case. For example, in Canada, “[t]he leading case on voting rights and electoral boundary readjustment is Carter. In fact, Carter is the only case of disputed electoral boundaries to have reached the Supreme Court.” [Michael Pal and Sujit Choudry, “Is Every Ballot Equal? Visible Minority Vote Dilution in Canada”, IRPP Choices vol. 13, no. 1 (January 2007), p. 14.] The degree to which this kind of leading case can be said to have "settled" the law is less than in situations where many rulings have reaffirmed the same principle.

Reference: WIKI Lists of landmark court decisions]

Famous Court Cases

McLibel Officially the longest case in English legal history, this ten year libel battle exposed the price of justice when corporations take on individuals. The fast food giant sued green campaigners David Morris and Helen Steel for libel over a stinging pamphlet criticising the their ethical credentials. McDonalds walked away with both a win and a PR disaster. The European court of human rights later declared in 2005 that the pair, who were unfunded and were representing themselves, had been denied their right to a fair trial.

George Ormond v Don Payne

July 9, 1789

This case involving a butcher and a prince’s coachman notable in the development of personal injury actions. It concerned an ordinary man who was injured by a royal carriage. The claimant, George Ormond, was a butcher who lived in Turnham Green, West London. The defendant, Don Payne, looked after the affairs of the Prince of Wales at Carlton House. The butcher sued Payne after the Prince’s coachman, George Smith — for whom he was legally responsible under civil law — drove into the butcher’s cart, breaking his leg. The coachman, according to Ormond’s claim, was in a terrible hurry and “in liquor”. The moment the horses were harnessed and he had mounted the box, he had “called for a glass of gin, drank it, threw the glass violently upon the pavement, flogged his horses” and sped away at a gallop. The jury found that Payne was liable for the coachman’s actions and awarded £100 damages.

Lady Rolfe v [4022926841890028789 James Barnes]

7 September 2009:

Lady Rolle of Bicton defames her head gardener…

“On the whole, employers got the employees they deserved – and sometimes very much better. Often badly managed, without clear instructions or consultation, head gardeners ran a large and efficient operation in return for neither recognition nor understanding. In one famous instance – still quoted as an authority in cases of defamation – an employer said something about her gardener which she knew to be false and ended up in court. The background to this case, called Barnes v. Rolle, was James Barnes’s tenure of nearly thirty years as head gardener at Bicton in Devon, during which time he developed Lord and Lady Rolle’s gardens into a mid-Victorian cynosure. William Robinson [influential editor of “The Garden” magazine] attested in court that they were second to none in England. Then Barnes was obliged by illness to retire, at fairly short notice. The widowed Lady Rolle was understandably piqued and, rather foolishly, made derogative remarks about him in a couple of letters she wrote shortly afterwards. In one she told a member of the public who had written to ask if he could visit the gardens that she did not want to take up the time of her new gardener with such visits because ‘everything in her garden and hothouses and greenhouses and arboretum are left in such a neglected state’. A keen attorney took up the case on Barnes’s behalf, but Lady Rolle did not take the matter seriously enough to reply to his letters and, as a result, Barnes’s barrister obtained judgement in default of her entering a defence. A hearing was called to assess the quantum of damages which, in those days, was always decided by a jury. Lady Rolle’s counsel invited the members of the jury to show their disapproval of the action by dismissing the claim with token damages of one farthing. Barnes’s lawyer replied that ‘persons in high stations were to be respected, but when they forgot what was due to those who had faithfully served them they became contemptible’. Barnes was awarded £100.”

Charles Quest-Ritson in “The English Garden: A Social History”, Chapter 4, pp. 214-5. Quest-Ritson quotes his source as “The Gardener’s Chronicle” of 1869.

R v Sussex Justices, ex p McCarthy
A leading English case on the impartiality and recusal of judges. It is famous for its precedence in establishing the principle that the mere appearance of bias is sufficient to overturn a judicial decision. It also brought into common parlance the oft-quoted aphorism "Not only must Justice be done; it must also be seen to be done. "

In 1923 McCarthy, a motorcyclist, was involved in a road accident which resulted in his prosecution before a magistrates court for dangerous driving. Unknown to the defendant and his solicitor, the clerk to the justices was a member of the firm of solicitors acting in a civil claim against the defendant arising out of the accident that had given rise to the prosecution. The clerk retired with the justices, who returned to convict the defendant.

On learning of the clerk's provenance, the defendant applied to have the conviction quashed. The justices swore affidavits stating that they had reached their decision to convict the defendant without consulting their clerk. Judgment

The appeal was essentially one of judicial review and was heard at the King's Bench division by Lord Chief Justice Hewart. In a landmark and far-reaching judgement, Lord Hewart CJ said:

“It is said, and, no doubt, truly, that when that gentleman retired in the usual way with the justices, taking with him the notes of the evidence in case the justices might desire to consult him, the justices came to a conclusion without consulting him, and that he scrupulously abstained from referring to the case in any way. But while that is so, a long line of cases shows that it is not merely of some importance but is of fundamental importance that justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done.
The question therefore is not whether in this case the deputy clerk made any observation or offered any criticism which he might not properly have made or offered; the question is whether he was so related to the case in its civil aspect as to be unfit to act as clerk to the justices in the criminal matter. The answer to that question depends not upon what actually was done but upon what might appear to be done.
Nothing is to be done which creates even a suspicion that there has been an improper interference with the course of justice. Speaking for myself, I accept the statements contained in the justices' affidavit, but they show very clearly that the deputy clerk was connected with the case in a capacity which made it right that he should scrupulously abstain from referring to the matter in any way, although he retired with the justices; in other words, his one position was such that he could not, if he had been required to do so, discharge the duties which his other position involved. His twofold position was a manifest contradiction.
In those circumstances I am satisfied that this conviction must be quashed, unless it can be shown that the applicant or his solicitor was aware of the point that might be taken, refrained from taking it, and took his chance of an acquittal on the facts, and then, on a conviction being recorded, decided to take the point. On the facts I am satisfied that there has been no waiver of the irregularity, and, that being so, the rule must be made absolute and the conviction quashed.”

The ruling is derived from the principle of natural justice and has been followed throughout the world in countries that use the English legal system. It has been applied in many diverse situations, including immigration cases, professional disciplinary cases, domestic tribunals such as members' clubs, and perhaps most famously in the Pinochet case, where the House of Lords overturned its own decision on the grounds of Lord Hoffman's conflict of interest.

Peter Thellusson
After his death Peter Thellusson's substantial estate was embroiled in the Thellusson Will Case, as he had written an unusual will whereby his fortune and estates were put into a trust fund for the benefit of future generations at the expense of his children and grandchildren.

R v Tolson May 13, 1889

Example of an appeal court using the common law inventively to prevent a manifest injustice. Martha Tolson received word that her husband, who had deserted her, had been lost at sea during a voyage to America. Five years after she last saw him, believing him to be dead, she remarried. But her first husband later returned from the US very much alive and she was prosecuted for bigamy. Under Section 57 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which defined the crime, she did not have to have committed bigamy knowingly or intentionally for it to have been a crime. On the face of it, it was enough for a conviction for her to have remarried within seven years of her husband having deserted her. However, her conviction was quashed. The appeal court said that despite the absence of words such as “knowingly committing bigamy” or “intentionally committing bigamy”, which would have excused her, Ms Tolson was saved in this situation by an old common law rule. An “honest and reasonable belief” in the existence of circumstances that, if true, would make the accused’s acts innocent, was a proper defence, the court ruled.

Somerset v Stewart (1772) 98 ER 499 (aka Somersett's case, or in State Trials v.XX Sommersett v Steuart)

Famous judgment of the English Court of King's Bench in 1772, which held that chattel slavery was unsupported by the common law in England and Wales, although the position elsewhere in the British Empire was left ambiguous. Lord Chief Justice, the Earl of Mansfield decided that:

"The state of slavery is of such a nature that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political, but only by positive law statute, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasions, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory. It is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.[Usherwood, Stephen. (1981) "The Black Must Be Discharged - The Abolitionists' Debt to Lord Mansfield" History Today Volume: 31 Issue: 3. 1981.]

James Somerset, an enslaved African, was purchased by Charles Stewart or Steuart, a Customs officer when he was in Boston, Province of Massachusetts Bay, a British crown colony in North America.

Stewart brought Somerset with him when he returned to England in 1769 but in 1771 Somerset escaped. After he was recaptured in November, Stewart had him imprisoned on the ship Ann and Mary (under Captain John Knowles), bound for the British colony of Jamaica. He directed that Somerset be sold to a plantation for labour. Somerset's three godparents from his baptism as a Christian in England, John Marlow, Thomas Walkin and Elizabeth Cade, made an application on 3 December before the Court of King's Bench for a writ of habeas corpus. Captain Knowles on 9 December produced Somerset before the Court of King's Bench, which had to determine whether his imprisonment was lawful.

Reference WIKI Simerset v Stewart

Tichborne Case

The Tichborne case was a famous legal case in Victorian England in the 1860s and 1870s. An individual referred to as Thomas Castro or as Arthur Orton, (the Claimant), claimed to be the missing heir to the Tichborne baronetcy. He failed to convince the courts, was convicted of perjury and served a long prison sentence.

Roger Tichborne, heir to the family's title and fortunes, was presumed to have died in a shipwreck in 1854. His mother clung to a belief that he might have survived, and after hearing rumours that he had made his way to Australia, she advertised extensively in Australian newspapers, offering a reward for information. In 1866, a butcher known as Thomas Castro from Wagga Wagga came forward claiming to be Roger Tichborne. Although his manners and bearing were unrefined, he gathered support and travelled to England. He was instantly accepted by Lady Tichborne as her son, although other family members were dismissive and sought to expose him as an impostor.

After a civil court had rejected the Claimant's case, he was charged with perjury, and campaigned throughout the country to gain popular support for his cause. In 1874, a criminal court jury decided that he was not Roger Tichborne and declared him to be Arthur Orton. Before passing a sentence of 14 years, the judge condemned the behaviour of the Claimant's counsel, Edward Kenealy, who was subsequently disbarred because of his conduct.

Zong Massacre Gregson v Gilbert (1783) 3 Doug. KB 232.

The WIKI Zong Massacre was the mass murder of 133 enslaved Africans by the crew of the slave ship Zong in the days following 29 November 1781. The exact number of deaths is unknown but James Kelsall (the Zong's first mate) later said that "the outside number of drowned amounted to 142 in the whole" (quoted in Lewis 2007, p. 364). The ship was owned by the Gregson slave-trading syndicate, based in Liverpool, which participated in the Atlantic slave trade. As was common business practice, they had taken out insurance on the lives of the slaves as cargo. When the ship ran low on potable water following navigational mistakes, the crew threw slaves overboard into the sea to drown, partly in order to ensure the survival of the rest of the ship's inhabitants, and in part to cash in on the insurance on the slaves, thus not losing money on the slaves which would have died from the lack of drinking water.

The ship's owners claimed compensation from their insurers for the loss of the slaves. The insurers refused to honour the claim and were taken to court by the Liverpool syndicate. Legal proceedings began when the insurers refused to compensate the owners of the Zong. The dispute was initially tried at the Guildhall in London on 6 March 1783, with the Lord Chief Justice, the Earl of Mansfield, overseeing the trial before a jury.

Robert Stubbs was the only witness in the first Zong trial and the jury found in favour of the owners, under an established protocol in maritime insurance that considered slaves as cargo. On 19 March 1783, Olaudah Equiano, a freed slave, told the anti-slave-trade activist Granville Sharp of the events aboard the Zong and a newspaper soon carried a lengthy account, reporting that the captain had ordered the slaves killed in three batches. Sharp sought legal advice the next day, about the possibility of prosecuting the crew for murder.

The insurers of the Zong applied to the Earl of Mansfield to have the previous verdict set aside and for the case to be tried again. A hearing was held at the Court of King's Bench in Westminster Hall from 21–22 May 1783, before Mansfield and two other King's Bench judges, Mr Justice Buller and Mr Justice Willes. The Solicitor General, John Lee, appeared on behalf of the Zong's owners, as he had done previously in the Guildhall trial.] Granville Sharp was also in attendance, together with a secretary he had hired to take a written record of the proceedings.

Mansfield concluded that the insurers were not liable for losses resulting from errors committed by the Zong's crew. Jeremy Krikler [the historian], has argued that Mansfield wanted to ensure that commercial law remained as helpful to Britain's overseas trade as possible and as a consequence was keen to uphold the principle of "general average", even in relation to the killing of humans. This principle holds that a captain who jettisons part of his cargo in order to save the rest, can claim for the loss from his insurers. For Mansfield to have found in favour of the insurers, would have greatly undermined this idea. Because is was revealed that rain had fallen during the period of the killings, Mansfield was able to order a retrial, while leaving the notion of "general average" intact. He emphasised that the massacre would have been legally justified and the owners' insurance claim would have been valid, if the water shortage had not arisen from mistakes made by the captain.

Landmark decisions in the United Kingdom

Decisions in leading cases in the United Kingdom have usually been made by the House of Lords, or more recently the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom; in Scotland by the Court of Session or High Court of Justiciary; in England and Wales by the Court of Appeal or the High Court of Justice of England and Wales. Some twentieth century examples involved contributions from the late Lord Denning.

  • Darcy v Allein [1603] 77 Eng. Rep. 1260 (King’s Bench) (most widely known as The Case of Monopolies): establishing that it was improper for any individual to be allowed to have a monopoly over a trade.
  • The Case of Prohibitions (1607) (Court of Common Pleas)
  • Bushel's Case (1670) (Court of Common Pleas): establishing the principle that a judge cannot coerce a jury to convict.
  • Entick v Carrington [1765] 19 Howell's State Trials 1030: establishing the civil liberties of individuals and limiting the scope of executive power.
  • Tulk v Moxhay (1848) 41 ER 1143: establishing that in certain cases a restrictive covenant can "run with the land" (i.e. bind a future owner) in equity.
  • Hadley v Baxendale (1854) 9 Exch. 341 (Court of Exchequer): establishing the extent to which a party in breach of contract is liable for the damages.
  • Rylands v Fletcher (1868) LR 3 HL 330: establishing a doctrine of strict liability for some inherently dangerous activities.
  • Foakes v Beer [1884] 9 A.C. 605: establishing the rule that prevents parties from discharging a contractual obligation by part performance.
  • The Moorcock 14 P.D. 64 (1889): establishing the concept of implied terms in contract law.
  • Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Company [1893] 1 QB 256: establishing the test for formation of a contract.
  • Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre v Selfridge and Co. Ltd. [1915] A.C. 847: confirming privity of contract: only a party to a contract can be sued on it.
  • A-G v De Keyser's Royal Hotel Ltd [1920] AC 508: establishing that the Crown has no right under the royal prerogative to take possession of an owner's land in connection with the defence of the realm without paying compensation, and that a statute in force may prevail to regulate the exercise of an existing prerogative power.
  • Donoghue v Stevenson [1932] S.C.(H.L.) 31: Lord Atkin established the "neighbour principle" as the foundation of the modern Scots delict (English tort) of negligence. This case used a wide ratio decidendi, which was held later as obiter, but still established the law of tort.
  • Central London Property Trust Ltd v High Trees House Ltd [1947] K.B. 130: establishing the doctrine of promissory estoppel.
  • Associated Provincial Picture Houses Ltd v Wednesbury Corporation [1948] 1 KB 223: establishing the concept of Wednesbury unreasonableness for judicial review.
  • Hedley Byrne v Heller [1963] 2 All E.R. 575: establishing liability for pure economic loss, absent any contract, arising from a negligent statement.
  • Fagan v Metropolitan Police Commissioner [1969] 1 QB 439: a leading case illustrating the requirement for concurrence of actus reus (Latin for "guilty act") and mens rea (Latin for "guilty mind") in order to establish a criminal offence.
  • Ramsay v IRC [1982] A. C. 300: establishing a doctrine that ignores for tax purposes the purported effect of a pre-ordained series of transactions into which there are inserted steps that have no commercial purpose apart from the avoidance of a liability to tax.
  • Furniss v Dawson [1984] A.C. 474: establishing that tax can be levied on the results of a composite transaction, even if steps that are only there for the purpose of avoiding tax do not cancel each other out.
  • Factortame case (1990): the European Court of Justice ruled that the House of Lords was required to suspend an Act of Parliament that infringed EC law.
  • R v R [1991]: the House of Lords invalidated the defence of marital rape to reflect a changing view in society.

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