On the towpath of the Oxford Canal, where the narrow boats moor near the centre of town, I came across a large, irritable, white swan. It was so out of place - being wild, and unregulated - that I couldn't believe it was legal. It was hissing and stretching its neck and making pecking movements at cyclists. That's surely not acceptable in a built-up area, is it? Shouldn't I call some Government agency to report it? Have its licence withdrawn?
That's what we've come to in Britain. A wild swan is so out of place on a canal towpath that even someone like me considers reporting it to the authorities for the sake of public order.
When you look around Britain, this Brave New World is everywhere you turn. We now live in a country where children can't have a pancake race without public liability insurance. Almost every sort of public gathering has to be supervised, overseen, marshalled. It all has to be permitted, in writing, by the police, the council the - I don't know - the Health and Safety Executive.
The numbers have to be limited by insurance. But why? Because any accident is liable to produce a court case to see if compensation is due to the person who was hurt, or to their family and possibly to the public-service workers who attended the accident.
The world changes, and not always for the worse.
People now have access to the legal system in a way we didn't when I was young. That's got to have a good side to it. The authorities are also a lot more careful about their relations with members of the public. They can get sued if they're not. We can hit back at our masters, our bosses, our administrative overlords. That's all to do with this compensation culture, so-called, that has sprung up in the last generation.
So, I'm not against it all, not by any means. Like you, I'm in favour of justice. But, if the law gets out of whack with what most people feel is fair, then there's a problem.
Here are a few stories, summaries, Parliamentary exchanges and extracts from depositions that show a compensation system out of whack with what most reasonable people think is fair.
DON'T FENCE ME IN
As a nine-year-old child, Carl Murphy broke into a warehousing unit near Liverpool, climbed on to its roof, fell 40 feet and fractured his skull. He was partially blinded and had 17 metal plates fitted to hold his skull together. He and his grandmother (who looked after him while his parents were in prison for crack dealing) say the accident caused him to develop behavioural problems. It was unclear whether these problems included his shaving his head, making the scars more prominent, and intimidating local residents.
On turning 18 in 2005, he sued the owner of the unit. Damages were owing to him, he said, because if the site had had a better security fence he wouldn't have been injured. The grandmother was quoted as saying, "He never finished school because the teachers couldn't control him. He was a nice boy before the accident but ever since the injuries he has been difficult to control. He needs this money. That is him for life now. What is he going to do without it?"
"I deserve this money and I don't care what anybody says about me," he said. "I'm going to buy a big house so I have a place to live with me mum when she gets out of jail. I might buy a few houses - I'll buy whatever I want ... The papers just call me a yob and a thug because I've been done for robbery and assault, but those were just silly, stupid little things, like.
"I want to spend my money the way I want without people interfering and I want to have a prosperous future. I want to take my mates to Liverpool games and get a flash car. This money is mine now and I'll do what I want. I don't care about anyone or what they have to say about it."
His plans for the money have no bearing on the case. The money is indeed his and he is entitled to do what he wants with it. Although if he spent it all on cars and football and preferred not to work, then he would again be entitled to relief from public funds.
This background has been included only to sway you, the jury. But some of us can be tempted into hard-hearted argument. He infringed property rights, climbing high on someone else's roof. He courted danger for the many benefits that brings. After his fall, he was treated out of the public purse. He wasn't prosecuted for trespass, or charged for his treatment.
And then he was given half a million pounds because he had been grievously wronged. "That's him for life."
As a compensation comparison, the parents of James Bulger received £7,500 after their toddler was murdered by two older boys and dumped. The family of Damilola Taylor received £10,000.
WHEELS OF MISFORTUNE
An Ontario woman who got drunk at an office party and crashed her car successfully sued her employer for allowing her to drive.
The company had offered her a cab ride or a night's accommodation if she gave up her keys, but it did them no good in court. Linda Hunt won more than $300,000 (around £150,000) from her employers after arguing that she should have been stopped from driving home in a snowstorm after a Christmas party in 1994.
The judge assessed the lady's damages from the accident at $1.2m, but reduced that by three-quarters to reflect her own fault in the matter. She was mostly to blame for insisting on drunkenly driving into a car crash, but she got $300,000 because the judge declared that the employers were 25 per cent to blame as they had failed to monitor her alcohol consumption.
Earlier this year, six prison warders shared around £1m in damages and legal costs for "severe psychological injuries" suffered five years earlier.
They had responded to an emergency buzzer from a cell. They opened the door and saw what their solicitor called a scene of "Gothic horror". The living occupant of the cell, Jason Ricketts, had murdered his cellmate, Colin Bloomfield, by cutting him open and removing his liver, which he placed on a chair. He had also removed an eyeball. The prison officers ended up in the dead man's blood, and one of them tried, hopelessly, to resuscitate the corpse. Gruesome business.
But what was the money for? Was it to punish the Home Office or to compensate the officers? And what is a manager to do? When your officers' hands are on the doorknob and they know something terrible is on the other side, what do you, as their manager, do? Do you tell them to go in? And, if they don't go in, who does? And does the clean-up always take a tariff of £200,000 each? And how much would the cellmate have been entitled to, had he lived? Almost certainly less than £200,000. He would have got much less than those forced to witness the mess he had become.
A pupil was expelled from Churston Ferrers Grammar School near Brixham for selling cannabis. The boy failed to get into another school place within six weeks (schools are reluctant to take in teen drug-dealers). Torbay Council paid for the child to get five hours of home-schooling a week against a standard requirement of 25 hours a week. After eight months the boy was placed in a college of further education. The ombudsman ordered the council to pay £1,500 towards the boy's education and £250 for the father's trouble in chasing up the complaint.
If that juvenile drug dealer is sensitive, he has probably learned a life-changing lesson from this experience. Parents may feel it is not one that the taxpayer should be offering. Selling drugs in school is now part of the fabric of normal life. You say, "My son's comprehensive is full of drugs" - and other parents sigh, "They all are."
And, considering the official reaction to the drug-dealing and its consequences amounting to a cash payment of £1,750, it isn't entirely surprising.
The Michigan Lawsuit Abuse organisation runs a Wacky Warnings competition every year. Manufacturers hear about the wilder compensation cases and (whether or not the cases are true) decide to put warnings on their products "just in case".
Frankly, some of them are so preposterous that you naturally assume they're made up. But, at www.mlaw.org/wwl/index.html, they provide photographs of the labels.
Since 1997, the past winners of the Michigan Lawsuit Abuse have been the following:
* A warning label on a bottle of dried bobcat urine, made to keep rodents and other pests away from garden plants, that says: "Not for human consumption."
* A label on a kitchen knife that warns: "Never try to catch a falling knife."
* A cocktail napkin that has a map of the waterways around Hilton Head, South Carolina, printed on it, along with the message: "Caution: Not to be used for navigation."
* A popular scooter for children that warns: "This product moves when used."
* A flushable toilet brush that warns: "Do not use for personal hygiene."
* A digital thermometer that can be used to take a person's temperature several different ways that warns: "Once used rectally, the thermometer should not be used orally."
* A household iron that warns: "Never iron clothes while they're being worn."
* A label on a hairdryer that reads: "Never use hair dryer while sleeping."
BLAME THE BOSS
In Russia, a French electrician died after drinking too much vodka. It was ruled that he was the victim of a "workplace accident" even though he wasn't at work, or even working at the time. He died of alcohol poisoning after a night of Russian drinking with indigenous colleagues in Nalchik, southern Russia.
His widow's social security fund refused to consider this an industrial accident, or pay her the pension she would have received if her husband had died in harness. But the courts concluded that the man's death was indeed an industrial accident because work duties had required him to attend the party. His employers should therefore share the blame for his demise.
THREE LITTLE BIRDS
The winners of the 2002 True Stella Awards (for the most perverse and annoying lawsuits) were sisters Janice Bird, Dayle Bird Edgmon and Kim Bird Moran, who sued their mother's doctors and the hospital in which she received treatment. Janice had accompanied her mother to a minor medical procedure. When something went wrong, Janice and Dayle witnessed doctors rushing their mother to surgery. Rather than malpractice, their legal fight centred on the "negligent infliction of emotional distress" - the distress caused to them when they saw doctors rushing to help their mother. The case was fought all the way to the California Supreme Court, which finally ruled against the women.
SHOT IN THE FOOT
A drug enforcement agent, Lee Paige, picked up an "unloaded" gun during a school safety demonstration and pulled the trigger. He told the pupils: "I am the only person in this room professional enough to handle this gun!" He pulled the trigger again and shot himself in the foot.
The videotape found its way on to the internet and the agent sued because he "became and is the target of jokes, derision, ridicule and disparaging comments. Mr Paige has also been subjected to such comments made to his wife and children. Mr Paige has been frequently confronted with embarrassing comments from people both inside and outside the United States about the accidental discharge, including people at restaurants, grocery stores and airports.
"White supremacy organisations have used the videotape to ridicule black Americans in general and Mr Paige in particular. Because he became highly recognisable as a result of the disclosure of the videotape, Mr Paige has been unable to act as an undercover agent. As a result of the notoriety, Mr Paige is no longer permitted or able to give educational motivational speeches and presentation." Note: He is suing because he is no longer able to give safety presentations. And he is no longer able to give these presentations because people know he let off a loaded gun in front of a room of children, causing actual bodily harm.
This is an edited extract from 'Sour Gripes', by Simon Carr, Portrait, £9.99. To order a copy of the book with free p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897 or go to www.independentbooksdirect.co.ukReuse content