Uncommon Law

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Cover of the 1979 edition, showing Alastair Sim as Mr Justice Swallow, a frequent foil to Haddock

Uncommon Law is a book by A. P. Herbert first published by Methuen in 1935. Its title is a satirical reference to the English common law. The book is an anthology of fictitious law reports first published in Punch in which Herbert explores, as he saw it, rather absurd aspects of the law, and upholds his civil liberties with the protagonist Albert Haddock, representing Herbert's point of view, taking many to court. It includes perhaps the most well-known of these cases, The Negotiable Cow. Herbert himself said "Albert Haddock made his first public appearance, in Punch, in 1924. I have always understood that I invented him: but he has made some disturbing escapes into real life".[1]

A television series was made between 1967 and 1971 of many of the cases, starring Roy Dotrice as Haddock, and more often than not Alastair Sim as Mr. Justice Swallow, the judge who has to unravel Haddock's logic.

Selection of cases[edit]

  • Rex v Haddock: Is it a Free Country?
Haddock jumps off Hammersmith Bridge for a bet and is arrested and charged with numerous offences by the bemused police, including "polluting a watercourse"; his defence is that "there is no law against it" and that he did it "for fun". The Lord Chief Justice disagrees, saying "it is a fundamental principle of English law that a person who appears in a police court has done something undesirable". When questioned on his motive that he did it "for fun", the judge states "We are not here for fun. There is no reference to fun in any Act of Parliament".
  • Tinrib, Rumble, And Others v The King and Queen: Fish Royal
A dead whale is washed up on the shore of Pudding Magna in Dorset and a dispute ensues as to who is responsible for its disposal, which becomes increasingly urgent as the carcase has started to decompose, making the town unpleasant to live in. It is contended according to precedent that the whale is "fish royal" and therefore the monarch is responsible; however, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food correctly points out that a whale is a mammal and therefore outside its jurisdiction. The appeal proceeds on the instructions of "the late residents of Pudding Magna", but is immediately adjourned.
  • Rex v Haddock: Is a Golfer a Gentleman?
The frustrated Mr Haddock, unable to make his golf ball follow its intended trajectory, is heard to utter a stream of swear words, and is summoned under the Profane Oaths Act 1745 which creates differing penalties for different classes of people, including gentlemen, to whom the highest rate is applied. Haddock argues that while playing golf, he is so bad at it that he no longer can be regarded as a gentleman, and therefore his fine should be lowered. He succeeds with this argument.

Vehicles for Law Reform[edit]

Being a law reform activist, Herbert, through these "Misleading Cases", aired, initiated and sustained debate on various aspects of the law in which he saw need for change: copyright, divorce, defamation, liquor licensing, the police as agents provocateurs (usually Constable Boot) and rules of the road being some of the recurrent themes.

References[edit]

Misleading Cases at the Internet Movie Database