See you in court

A neighbour's overhanging hedge, an insult overheard, disbarment from a club - even the slightest provocation can send the English running to the law courts. The stories in the following pages are of ordinary people taking on the legal system and sometimes falling foul of it. But without this litigious impulse, argues Neil Lyndon, there would be blood

Neil Lyndon
Friday 17 May 1996 23:02

The story of the Stantons and the Joneses gives the perfect picture of English litigiousness, showing two houses at variance with each other, Montagues and Capulets of our time.

Neighbours in Tillyard Croft, near Birmingham, the Stantons and the Joneses feuded for 18 years over the hedge between their gardens. In the last seven years of their dispute, these sensible, middle-class people accumulated more than pounds 100,000-worth of legal costs, equal to the value of each of their houses. Mr Stanton is a retired engineer, Mr Jones a retired teacher. Both of them must have risked the bulk of their life savings in their legal battle, which exquisitely demonstrates what mighty contests arise from trivial things.

Mr Stanton had planted giant leylandii cypress trees in his garden to shield his property from the intrusive curiosity, as he saw it, of the Joneses. They, proud, diligent and prizewinning gardeners, complained that the 25-foot trees took away the sunlight they needed to ripen their strawberries and other soft fruit.

Solicitors' letters, writs and injunctions hailed across the hedge, while a flinty silence settled for years between the neighbours, broken only by impatient bursts of action. Mrs Jones would sometimes complain about Mr Stanton's garden hose dousing her as she tried to gather her fruit. Mr Jones attacked the tops of the conifers with a saw, getting an injunction for his efforts.

The feud was settled this year when the courts required 12 feet to be lopped from the tops of the trees, and ordered Mr Stanton to pay his neighbours' legal costs. He, in mourning retreat, made a symbolic cardboard coffin and attached an epitaph for "my lovely trees, whose gentle green fronds have so nobly softened my gaze against the ugly reality beyond".

Imagine how this story might have gone, in another country or another age. Think what might have happened had the neighbours lived in Kentucky or in Sicily, or in England before the 16th century. The Stantons and the Joneses, and their children unto the fourth and fifth generation, would have gone to war with each other. Knives, bullets and boiling pitch might have flown across the conifers. Fathers and brothers would have been killed or mutilated. Mothers would have wept for the children that were no more.

Nothing more ludicrous and wasteful of time and life itself may be imagined than an 18-year spat over a hedge; but the conflict between the Stantons and the Joneses may also be seen as a symbol of England's most enduring gift to human civilisation. As a citizenry, when we fall out with each other we are deeply inclined by habit and character to resort to legal process rather than to exact personal revenge. The litigious itch that looks like a blemish on the British character, marking us out as the most nit-picking and peevish of peoples, has a positive side.

That point of view was given scholarly expression last year in Men of Blood, a study of murder in modern England by Dr Elliott Leyton, a Canadian social anthropologist and leading authority on criminal psychology, especially serial murder.

Why, he asked, is murder so uncommon in England? Why are fewer homicides committed in England and Wales than in any other heavily industrialised and extensively urbanised country in the world? Why has the homicide rate in this country been so consistently low for so many generations in the last two centuries that it can truly, and not complacently, be described as negligible? Our annual rate of murders has been constant at around 0.5 per 100,000 of the population for the last half century - a 20th of the rate in America in the Nineties, and a 40th of the rate in post-Soviet Russia. France's and Germany's murder rates are roughly double our own.

Leyton shows that our country was not always so disinclined to homicide. It has been calculated that in London in the 14th century murders were committed at five times the present American average. In Oxford, in the 1340s, the annual rate was more than 100 per 100,000 of the population. What happened in England to cause such a remarkable change?

The control of lethal weapons is one self-evident factor. There may be more small arms in private hands in England now than at any time in the last 150 years, but the majority are illegally held. The rights of individuals to bear arms have been progressively restricted in England for 500 years. Another element has been the growth of a powerful central authority in monarch, parliament and courts that commands the obedience and respect of the population at large. But prominent among the answers in Leyton's book is this: "A truly low homicide rate, operating even in times of social dislocation, is only likely in a country where the social order provides reasonable legal alternatives to physical confrontation."

The blood feud and the neighbourhood vendetta have been extirpated from the English social character over centuries. Unlike Americans, Italians and even Scots (the murder rate in Scotland is more than five times higher than that in England and Wales), the English do not feel that a man is operating under a sympathetic code of moral justice if he stabs his neighbour in a row over a smoky bonfire or a high hedge. We do not reckon that a spited husband or wife has a natural right to kill an adulterous spouse or their lover. Every year, in England and Wales, about 150 women are murdered by the men they live with, and 20 or so men are murdered by the women they live with. These figures are strikingly lower than in any other comparable Western country. We share with the Stantons and the Joneses a profoundly conditioned instinct to go to court if we cannot settle our differences ourselves. The serial litigant, rather than the serial murderer, is the better exemplar of our national character.

This instinct has made the English the most litigious society in human history. Many more civil cases are heard in America, but the great majority of those are commercial actions over contracts, where individuals sue corporate institutions, or they sue each other for money. The English are much more inclined to issue proceedings and bring legal action one against another to get justice or vindication. In Who's Who, Richard Ingrams gives his recreation as "litigation". In this, as in so much more, the founder and publisher of Private Eye is a distinctly British figure, though he takes his pleasure in receiving rather than issuing writs.

To see himself as possessing high moral rectitude, or even infallibility, is a constant characteristic of the serial litigant. To prosecute a sense of having been wronged, people must first feel that they were originally - or always - right. This is the motive force behind most writs for libel and for divorce, the legal actions in which the English taste for court proceedings is commonly expressed.

A feature of contested divorce and libel actions is the inability of the litigants to recognise or admit fault of their own, even when it is toweringly obvious. Robert Maxwell, who never saw a flaw in himself, not only issued more writs for defamation than anybody else in Britain, but was also the publisher most likely to sanction the publication in one of his own papers of a libel against a weaker person - and the one least likely to apologise, if victims of his lies proved themselves to be innocent.

In these legal habits, Maxwell followed Armand Hammer, the Californian oil tycoon whom he admired and by whom he was dwarfed in every monstrousness except gluttony and physical size. For 70 years, beginning in 1919, Hammer issued an almost unbroken stream of writs in the courts of America and London. He would call in his battalions of lawyers if any line were published about him that seemed to question his divinity. Even in the last months and weeks of his 92 years, when he was lost in senile dementia, Hammer was briefing silks in Britain, where he was going to sue the author and publishers of an anodyne biography in what was predicted to be the longest libel action ever heard. His death, just before Christmas 1990, cast a pall of mourning over the Inns of Court.

The litigant careers of Maxwell and Hammer show that a bottomless supply of silver can comprehensively pervert the justice system. The story of the Stantons and the Joneses shows that an unbending sense of private moral correctness, pursued in litigation, will lead to public ruin. Between those poles of madness lies one of the jewels of our civilisation. The high fronds of litigiousness that hedge around English life may be among our less attractive features; but they also nobly soften our gaze against the ugly reality beyond. A price for doing good John Morris, who is in his early seventies, is a local councillor and former sub-postmaster in Clevedon, Wiltshire. He has fought four separate litigations, one of which continues, and he has appeared in the Court of Appeal as a litigant in person. John Morris's first interest as a Tory councillor was in public rights of way and land deals, for which he put himself through a crash course in planning and local government law. His first essay into the courts was against the council, on behalf of500 Clevedon citizens who were losing a public footpath. Thinking he was doing something for the public good, he took the matter to a judicial review in London and actually found he was in the wrong court: "I should have been in a county court." Still, he was proved right, and the council had to pay costs. Little did he appreciate the consequences. He hadn't, of course, toed the party line - "but I don't think you should do that in local politics," he says wryly. So the caucus of Conservative co

uncillors tried to have him thrown out of the Tory Party. Morris wasn't having any of that. He went to the High Court and won, and the local Tories were left with a pounds 5,000 bill. It might have ended there, but when he objected in the council chamber about the sale of council land, he was attacked in a way that implied he was making mischief. "What do you do?" he asks. "You either lie down and take it, or you fight back. I decided

to fight back. I treasure my good name in the district, and I was determined to clear it." He issued a writ against the council. "They argued that my claim was frivolous," Morris recalls, "an abuse of the process, and that my statement of claim was prolix - which it was. My action was struck out twice. So I went to appeal locally, to the actin

g High Court judge, and he, too, refused my claim. By that time, I was up the creek for over pounds 10,000 in costs, but I still felt in my gut that I had a good case." The solicitors for the council's insurers then made him a tempting offer: if he went away, they would reduce their costs' bill by a third. "It struck me: why the hell did they need to do that, if they'd got such a good case? So I decided I'd go the whole

hog and go to the Court of Appeal. I got leave to appeal from a single lord justice. They then objected on the grounds that the judge had erred in law. They were after me all the way." After almost nine months, Morris came before a two-judge court in London. "They questioned me, and questioned the barrister for the other side. Halfway through, I sensed they were going my way." Whilst the judges agreed that Morris's statement of claim was prolix, they said that they had seen many written by professionals which were longer and less clear. He won all costs going back to 1991, but almost forgot to ask for them. One of the judges kept saying to him, "Is there something else, Mr. Morris?" Eventually, the penny dropped. Morris quickly explained that the whole business had been very time consum

ing. "What you're really trying to tell me," prompted the judge helpfully, "is that you want costs here and below." Costs at the standard rate were granted then and there, in February 1993; though Morris still hasn't received them. Morris v. Wiltshire was reported in The Times and became a precedent entry in the White Book (as the manual of Supreme Court procedure is known). The council apologised for the libel, and last December a district judge determined the amount of Morris's c

osts, a decision which roused him to further anger: "I was cut down to the minimum litigant-in-person rate of pounds 8.50 an hour, which I think is wrong, and I'm going to be writing a paper about that. The insurers' costs are going to be about pounds 35,000, but I'm expected to go away with about pounds 15,000. As I'm a Post Office pensioner, my cash flow is very, very weak. The insurance company are pushing me for a lower figure because they know that I'm up the creek for cash." Meanwhile, his enemies among the council's Tories had tried to expel him from the local Rotary Club he ran, by engineering its closure and starting up a new club that would deny him membership. After attempting to settle the matter through internal arbi tration, he went to the Chancery Court in November 1994 and won an injunction to stop a new club being formed. An undertaking was reached that the Rotarians would adhere to procedural rules, and the injunction was lifted, but when they started a newclub anyway, Morris applied for a summons for a breach of the undertaking. And this is where his luck ran out. The judge dismissed his application, and costs of pounds 55,000 were awarded against him. "My 50 to 60 years of public service will go by the board if I get costs against me of this nature," he laments. "I've stumbled an awful lot along the way. I now know the geography of the courts, how QCs do things on these last-minute skeletons, and how the judge tends to go their way." However, one thing that has improved, according to Morris, is the attitude of High Court clerks. "They're very much more helpful to a litigant in person than they used to be." Christopher Silvester Morris Jones the litigant Will Jones, 77, is a Carmarthenshire hill farmer. In protest against the incursions of city people and the bungling of water and energy companies, he has been to law five times over the last ten years. He has never been defeated. In the mid-Eighties, when city money was being poured into tax-avoidance forestry schemes, thousands of Welsh acres were heeled in under the forester's boot. Until, that is, they started on the hills around Will Jones's farm. Jones is a no-messing kind of farmer, and he didn't think much of the new schemes. "Welsh hills are for sheep," he said, "not Christmas trees and city tax-swervers." At the time, he was tenant of a 2,000-acre hill-holding in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty near Llandovery, a place of mountains, red kites and crashing watercourses. His landlords, a city trust fund in London, were not interested in the ruralappr eciation of Welsh upland farmers, so the planting went on. Will Jones then forbade them access across his land - their land - to the part of the mountain where the planting was under way. His landlords, waxing indignant about their right to do whatthey chose with their own property, served him with a notice to quit. Jones's family have been tenants on this land for six generations. He stood to lose it all. What did he stand to gain? He objected on principle to the planting of conifers on the mountain; he stood to gain not a lot. The sheep, cattle and ponies of a Welsh hill farmer were balanced against the might of city money. But he was not cowed. He and his Lampeter lawyer, Gareth Owen, served an injunction on the landlords and skimmed them through the legal system. On 15 September 1983, in Ammanford County Court, just outside Swansea, their injunction was upheld. There was an appeal, held at the Royal Courts of Justice in February 1985. Jones recalls that the night before he "didn't sleep a wink". He was waiting for the pronouncements of Lord Justice Cumming-Bruce. The silk he had taken "looked like Lloyd George"

, he says. "Good man. Of course, their silk was good, too. Very good." But not good enough. His landlords' appeal was dismissed. "Did you throw your hat over the pub, Will?" "Oh, not really." "Did you get your costs." "Oh ay." He later bought his farm, and 1,000 acres besides. But his troubles were not over. The farm lies beside the Llyne Brianne dam, which is to be converted for use as a hydroelectric power station. When Will discovered that the South Wales Electricity Genera

ting Board (SWALEC) and Welsh Water were planning to run pylons down the valley, he dug in his heels again. Erecting two huge poles on his land, right beside the road, he strung a banner between them which reads: "Who wants these poles? Welsh Water do, and SWALEC do. But do you?" Pinned to the fence is another banner, with a large cartoon of two fat pink pigs - one called SWALEC, the other WELSH WATER - snouting about in a troug

h out of which are flying pounds 1,000 notes. The underscored caption reads: "They say they can't afford to bury the cables." SWALEC and Welsh Water have been forced to capitulate. There will be no pylons. When they went to see Jones and told them of their decision, he said "I should damn well think so, too." But when they told him they planned to run wires underground, across his land, he replied, "Over my dead body." "So where are they going to put them, Will?" 'Down the road. All the bloody way to Llandovery." Jeremy James

Jeremy James is writing a film script, 'Valley of Angels', based on Will Jones's experience with the law How to be your own QC During the Seventies and Eighties, investigative journalist of the 'New Statesman', was the target of several Special Branch raids following his exposes of government dirty tricks. He has spent the Nineties defending himself in the courts after investigating alternative medicine, an experience which, he says, makes his brushes with the Special Branch seem tame. The first time I was dragged into litigation in person seems like an eternity ago, but it's only been five years since the Sunday Correspondent newspaper went into liquidation. I'd published there a magazine report on New Age pill pushers, a motley but angry collection of people with alternative media nostrums for every contagion known to humanity (and a few that aren't). Some of them ran a marketing organisation that mimics an institute of medicine. They came after the Correspondent and myself, furiously brandishing writs for libel. In truth, it wasn't so much money as vengeance that these people wanted. You can tell that when complainants don't bother to write a so-called "letter before action" asking for damages or apologies without a struggle. When they don't, it's because they want you to experience the interminable hassles of litigation. It may hurt them, their reasoning goes, but it should hurt you at least as much. The effect of this case for me was that I had to drop my job and do weeks of unpaid work for the paper's lawyers. Meanwhile, they racked up bills at pounds 120 an hour just for reading - or genteelly "perusing", as lawyers say - my efforts. A legal defence to the libel claim went in. Then the lawyers sold me down the river. The Sunday Correspondent was put into liquidation while the libel action was under way, and the lawyers gave the pill-pushing complainers pounds 4,000 to go away - and, thereby, paid them to carry on suing me, which is exactly what they did for three mor

e years. With the paper dead, I had to represent myself in court. I soon learned the ways of the lonely litigant.The first lesson was of an endless, idiotic dialogue of demands and detours through which the parties to litigation lead each other before they ever g

et near the courthouse door. Precious little of this has anything to do with the "real" issues, such as what is the truth. For the lawyers, it is joyful posturing and wonderful fees. The second lesson is to know the bible of these troublemakers' trade: the "White Book", 4,000 pages and three volumes of dense print that set out the intricate ways of the High Court. It's a best seller in legal bookshops - yours for only pounds 365. To be a real litigant in person, it is an essential prop. Find a sharp rule in the White Book that your opponent hasn't seen and you may score a point or two, or even a costs order, against them. The next thing I did was to sue my pursuers back. While accusing me of libelling them, they had also been trying to discredit my reporting of their activities. This meant yet more days arguing the merits of libel law from both sides of the fence. The third lesson is actually standing up in court and having to plead your case. On the first day, I found myself developing a grudging respect for barristers. Doing the job half right requires about 15 senses operating at once, as well as tactical judgement running in overdrive. The pill-pushers' case ground to a halt when my adversary's solicitor had to face a judge who wasn't at all amused by the months of messing me about which the case papers displayed. The judge had read them carefully before he saw us. He barely allowed me

a minute to ask for the case to be withdrawn. Then he turned on the hapless solicitor and asked him if he had any excuse. He ordered the solicitor to pay my costs before I even thought to ask. It was the shortest and sweetest legal hearing I've had. Since my first "do-it-yourself" experiences in the courts, I have twice successfully prosecuted libel actions, as well as been on the receiving end of many (handled, these times, by solicitors). The comparison that comes from doing both jobs is instructi

ve. It is galling to find solicitors trading on not much more than their ability to put "solicitor" on their notepaper. If a real legal advice is required, they rush to a barrister for an "opinion". If facts or investigation are required, they ask you to

do it yourself (and then they charge you pounds 200 an hour for reading it). Much has been written about the follies of the libel law and the level of damages awarded, especially in relation to personal injury claims. That is right - but the spotlight might also usefully fall on how high these awards have driven the lawyers'char ges, which apply even if nothing ever gets to court. The McLibel story Helen Steel 30, gave up her job as a gardener to fight the McDonald's food chain in what has become Britain's longest ever civil case. Dave Morris 41, a single parent and a former postman, is a co-defendant in the same action. The libel case, originally expected to last three or four weeks, is now in its 22nd month. McDonald's accuses the unemployed environmentalists of distributing a leaflet which claims it exploits its workers, customers and the environment. Every three hours, a new McDonald's opens somewhere in the world. So massive is the burger chain that it dispenses beef from almost 1 per cent of the world's cattle. All would be well with McDonald's, were it not for McLibel. McLibel began in September 1990. Steel and Morris, along with three others, were accused of handing out leaflets alleging that McDonald's were responsible for chopping down rainforests and producing food linked to heart disease, diabetes and cancer. The burger chain demanded a signed piece of paper from the five activist

s saying they would not hand out the leaflets and criticise McDonald's in the future. Three of the five agreed. Steel and Morris refused. McDonald's then made a possibly fatal mistake. They began legal proceedings, believing, wrongly, that the pair would back down. "No way were we going to sign," says Steel. "They should have apologised to us, not us to them. My mother always used to tell me to stand up to bullies. I see them as, basically, a bullying multinational trying to ensure that only their voice is heard. They spend $1.5 billion on putting across their point of view to the world, but they still don't want others to put theirs across." There followed 28 hearings before the trial proper began. Legal aid is not available for libel actions, and so Steel and Morris now live off the dole. McDonald's have at least two barristers and two solicitors on the case, plus support staff; the "McLibel Two" have only themselves, plus a handful of part-time helpers. Morris's style in court alternates between bull's-eyes and complete misses. Steel is far more studious and methodical. But the two complement each other well, and they often appear to do as good a job of extracting information from witnesses as does Richard Rampton, the polished QC acting for McDonald's. Most people would have looked at the odds and given in. But McDonald's have missed an important lesson: Don't pick fights with people who've got nothing to lose. The pair have no assets, but they are determined campaigners. The court case to them is another way of campaigning against exploitative multinationals. McDonald's have put themselves on trial. Never before have the ethics and working practices of a multinational been so publicly exposed. More than 60,000 pages of court transcripts and company paperwork are now in the public domain. McDonald's never wanted the world to hear a former store manager describe how its workers were forced to serve burgers over kitchen floors swimming with raw sewage, or that Big Macs were sold to the Japanese on the basis that they would make them grow tall and strong and pale. The burger chain say they are confident of victory - so confident that they have twice flown over board members to seek a settlement with the McLibel Two. And twice the McDonald's representatives have flown home empty-handed. Judgement is expected early next year. Danny Penman 'Eating my life away' Andreas Pavel 51, a multimedia producer based in Milan, inherited pounds 1 million from his German industrialist father. He has spent 18 years, and all his inheritance, fighting and losing against Sony, manufacturers of the Walkman, over his claim to have invented the personal stereo. In Britain alone he has run up a bill for court hearings of pounds 2.7 million. He insists that he's not beaten yet. "How this thing can protract itself for 20 years, when in the beginning somebody said it might take a year, I don't know," reflects Andreas Pavel. "It's not as if I set out, like a Don Quixote, to go into battle to conquer Japanese industry." Pavel's story began in 1977, when he lodged his patent application in Germany, two years before Sony started producing the Walkman. While on a walking holiday, he had thought up a "stereophonic system for personal wear" which would incorporate a pair of headphones, a belt, a cassette player, an amplifier and a storage pouch. He showed the idea to a couple of manufacturers. Eighteen months later, Sony came up with a product which, Pavel claimed, was the same as his in virtually every detail. At first, he was relieved - he owned the patent rights, he thought, but he wouldn't have to make the machine himself. What he didn't know was that Sony's first prototype had been made in the same month that his patent application had been published. He says that when his patent was issued in Germany, Sony wanted to come to an agreement, just to pay off his debts. They allegedly told him that huge headphones with a radio built in had been around for ten years before the Walkman. Pavel's dispute with Sony went on in Germany for another three years, until Sony finally paid him compensation, reported in the German press as being DM150,000 (then worth about pounds 40,000). In November 1988, he filed 18 writs against all the major in

fringers of his patent in the UK, and within a year he had begun his case against Sony. His action was eventually heard in the Patents County Court in 1993. If he won, he stood to gain pounds 100 million in royalties from the Walkman, which is estimated to have made pounds 3 billion. In court, Sony's lawyers filed a chart showing the sizes of their tape recorders over 25 years. "In the photos, it looked like things were getting smaller," Pavel maintains, "but, if you checked the dimensions, they were actually getting larger. Yetthe judge still went with them. I was flabbergasted." This March, he and his lawyers, supported by British legal aid, went to appeal. It all hinged on this: was the Walkman a simple, obvious idea waiting to become technically feasible, as Sony argued, or was it a completely unexpected concept which hadbeen theoretically possible for several years? Lord Justice Aldous, ruling for Sony, said that the Walkman would have been just as successful without any belt attachment, and that its ability to reproduce high-quality sound was the reason for its appeal. The judgement continues to enrage and depress Pavel. He cannot let go. "I have concluded that the British system, for me at least, has failed completely so far," he says flatly. When he filed his original patent, Pavel says he had "an interesting job and an interesting inheritance. Not much of that is left, but I do hope to regrow from the ashes. I've always considered very melancholic the history of people whose life has turned into a court case. "I started when I was 32; now I'm 51. Could it be that this whole thing is eating my life away?" Christopher Silvester

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in