Better than sex: the joys of litigation

Only erotic obsession comes close to requiring such dedication as the passion of a few for taking their fellow citizens to court.
WHOEVER SAID the House of Lords is an irrelevance? This month the highest court in the land began considering one of the most pressing issues of the day: the position of the boundary fence between John Insley's garden and Alan Wibberley's field in Saverley Green in Staffordshire. For Insley and Wibberley the final judgement over who owns the disputed six foot wide strip of land (estimated value: a few hundred pounds) will be the culmination of a legal battle which has lasted eleven years and cost a total of pounds 250,000. As well as losing his money, Insley has also lost his computer business.

For the rest of us the case is a reminder of how the law courts, supposedly the means by which civilised people settle their differences, can all too easily descend into the wig and pen equivalent of the Somme.

Like all good things, a belief in justice is something which can be taken to unhealthy extremes. Compulsive and serial litigants are perhaps the price we have to pay for having abolished cruder, simpler ways of settling disputes, like duelling.

Few quite have the stamina of Gaddam Hanumantha Reddy, an Indian civil servant who spent almost his entire 44 year career in the Indian civil service trying to sue his employers, complaining they had failed to provide with a post commensurate with his results in the entrance exam for the Hyderabad Civil Service. But for a growing number, going to court has become a career in itself. When Bradford man Tahir Hussain failed to get a job as a car salesman, he took the garage to an industrial tribunal claiming racial discrimination.

A second cv he had sent to the garage, identical in every respect except that he had put the name of a fictitious white female at the top, had resulted in an invitation to an interview. Not only did Hussain win the case, he has since won four more and accepted settlements in a further four cases - amassing a total of over pounds 24,000 in compensation.

Hussain's cases obviously had merit. More often, a serial litigant finds the court akin to the roulette wheel; early success encourages you, but in the long run you tend to lose all. Singer Dorothy Squires, who died last April, was one of those celebrity litigants who, when their career begins to flag, perhaps see the courtroom as a substitute for the stage. In the last years of her life she fought 20 legal suits, variously for libel, assault and piracy of her autobiography. The fees drove her to bankruptcy and eviction from her 17-room mansion at Bray in Berkshire.

One of the driving factors behind the growth in serial litigants is the mythological world of John Grisham novels and Hollywood films. According to Clemency Palmer, who treats trauma patients at the Yorkshire-based Centre for Crisis Psychology, many people these days have a view of the law courts as almost a magical place where natural justice will invariably be served if only they try hard enough.

"When people have an accident they often think seeking justice will heal the wounds, when they know at heart that it is detracting from their emotional recovery," she says.

For some of those who cannot stop pursuing hopeless cases, the only thing that will put an end to their activities is being declared a "vexatious litigant" - a state in which you are banned from bringing legal actions without special leave of court. English law possesses no sanction that is more permanent. For the rest of eternity you remain on a list held by the Lord Chancellor's Department and circulated to all courts. Currently, there are around 150 people on the list, the earliest entry dating from its inception on 5 June 1888.

One recent addition is the Reverend Paul Williamson, priest in charge of St George's in Feltham, Middlesex, who took the Church of England to court 14 times in three years in an attempt to have the ordination of women priests declared illegal. In the process he accused the Archbishop of Canterbury of treason and the General Synod of heresy. Like many vexatious litigants his life resembles an endless quest for ever higher authority: "I will pursue this matter with every fibre of my being while there is mortal breath in my body, ad nauseam, ad infinitum, ad eternum," he said before announcing he was off to the European Court of Justice.

The most disturbing thing about serial litigants is that just occasionally they are vindicated. "There is the notable case of Jean Carr, whom I took on at the request of the Law Society," says Geoff Bindman of Bindman & Partners.

"It began when she had been certified insane and she sued the hospital for negligence. Then she sued her lawyers and so on until she had got through six sets of lawyers. Many might have said was a bit nutty, but eventually she succeeded because she was right all along. Eventually she qualified as a barrister herself at the age of 69."

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