Letters To LawyersDear Lawyer:
A few days ago, I opened a bottle of milk purchased at a local
supermarket and found a rat inside it. What should I do about this?
It is interesting that you do not say, "I opened a bottle of milk and
found, *to my horror*, a rat inside it." That is the usual form, and one
which we in the legal profession strongly recommend. If it was not to
your horror, what exactly *was* it to? If, for example, it was to your
delight, then I am afraid that I am ethically bound to advise you that
there is little we can do to screw the supermarket for every penny it
has. Indeed, it could well be in your interest to write a note of thanks
to the shop, enclosing a nominal cheque, in order to protect yourself
against any claim on the part of the supermarket for its rat back.
If, though, it was merely to your surprise, say, then there may well
be what we in the profession call a bob or two to be made out of it.
Depending, naturally, on the extent of your surprise: far be it from me
to put ideas into your head, but if the surprise was such that you fell
back against a priceless T'ang vase which, as it shattered, caused your
prize chihuahua to snuff it, then compensation could well be
considerable. Whereas if you merely exclaimed: "Bugger me, it's a rat!"
I do not see much material advantage in going before the courts.
Nor do you say whether or not the rat was dead. If the rat left the shop alive and expired while in your charge, you could well find an action for cruelty brought against you, with the result that you might well be prohibited for life from keeping another rat. We in the legal profession should not, were this the case, wish to touch you with a bargepole.
Why not write me another letter something along the lines of: "A few
days ago, I opened a bottle of milk purchased at a local supermarket, and
to my inexpressible horror and disgust found a dead rat inside it, since
when I have had no sleep, suffered fainting fits, been unable to hold
anything on a stomach which has always been sensitive, and lost all
sexual interest. Can you in the legal profession take the supermarket to
the cleaners, not just for me, but for decent human beings everywhere?"
I should like a divorce, but I cannot prove anything against my
husband, I am just sick of his face looking at me from behind things.
What do I need to prove my marriage has broken down irretrievably?
What you need to prove your marriage has broken down irretrievably is a
lawyer. The changes in the Divorce Laws were brought about expressly to
make these unsavoury matters easier for lawyers who, in the bad old days,
often spent years listening to appalling old ratbags going on about their
spouses. Frequently, we ourselves had to go to the bother of appointing
private detectives charged with invading cherished privacy, or actually
prepared to cobble together bogus misconduct charges. Sometimes, even,
we had to go to the repulsive lengths of taking incriminating photographs
of decent human beings who wanted nothing more than peace and quiet.
Needless to say, all this filled the legal profession with disgust; there
is nothing worse than watching unqualified people -- photographers,
security men, hotel staff -- cleaning up, when the rest of us have spent
years studying for smart diplomas.
If I had my time over again, I used to think, I'd buy a Polaroid camera
and an old macintosh, and bugger sitting around in pinstripe trousers: to
this day, I have never seen anyone else Doing It, and probably never
Fortunately, the new divorce procedures have changed all that. To
put the complex legal niceties into a nutshell for the layman, what the
latest legislation means is that we get it all, and that we get it
quickly. We do not have to listen to long boring stories about how he
gets drunk and hits you with the bedside table, we do not have to
interview dreary filing clerks, we do not have to spread the jam around
to private eyes and chamberpersons; all that we require is one piece of
paper from you saying you are sick and tired of his face looking at you
from behind things, plus several more pieces of paper saying I Promise To
Pay The Bearer Twenty Pounds, and we shall do the rest.
In the light of the Lee Marvin case, I was wondering if there might
be anything in it for me. While I am not a mistress, there is no doubt
that the man from the flat upstairs has been down here on three
occasions, to my certain knowledge. It occurred to me I might be
entitled to his stereo set, or his electric kettle at the very least.
What is my position?
Firstly, I ought to tell you that the principle of Is There Anything In
It For Me? has no construction in law. It is not, thank God, the basis
upon which English Law is founded. That basis remains, Is There Anything
In It For Us?
In your case, the law is still in a state of flux; which means,
briefly, that we haven't tried it on yet. As in so many other vital
areas -- the tinned martini, the mobile massage parlour, the aerosol --
American Law is in the juridical vanguard, and it may well be years
before the rest of the world catches up. Take, for example, plea
bargaining: American lawyers may now take up to 25% of the damages they
obtain for clients, but it could be twenty years before English law
rights the present injustice against its practitioners, by which time
their American brothers will doubtless be carrying home 90% or more.
Which is as it should be: after all, what good is a million dollars to,
say, a living vegetable? Can he buy a Maserati with it? A power boat?
What I am trying to say is that whatever the final outcome of the
Marvin case, the lawyers involved will have found it worth bringing. In
YOUR affair, I would not even be allowed a go on the electric kettle, and
my fee, to judge from your letter written on the back of an unpaid United
Dairies final demand, would be little more than risible. However, the
fee is not everything, and what we may be looking at is a chance to write
a new chapter in the history of our law.
The best place to write it, in my professional view, would be either the Sunday People or the Sun, depending on the quality of the snaps we manage to arrange. As your lawyers, we should be more than happy to act as your agent in the necessary negotiations, for the usual commission, and we look forward eagerly to your instructions.
As to your final question, there's no answer to that!
(Morecambe v. Wise, Queen's Bench Division, 1971).
In June 1974, a tree root from the garden next door grew through the
side of our new polystyrene pond, causing subsidence to a gnome. My
neighbour refused to compensate me for the disaster, and my solicitor
sought counsel's advice. He recommended that I go to court; the case
took five days, mainly because a number of what my counsel described as
fascinating legal points were involved, and I lost it. Costs ran to five
As I was short of money, I sought time to pay, and took a second job
as a nightwatchman, where, after three days, I was struck on the head
with a lead pipe. The company dismissed me, and counsel insisted that I
sue them for unfair dismissal. During the hearing, it transpired that I
had been asleep when struck on said head; the dismissal was upheld, and
costs were given against me. They were also given against me in the case
I was advised to bring against my other employer who had dismissed me on
the grounds that I had been off work for two weeks to attend a hearing
about being unfairly dismissed from my second job.
Now unemployed, I could not find new work due to shooting pains in
head where it had made contact with lead pipe; my lawyer sought
compensation from the Criminal Injuries Board, unsuccessfully, for which
I had to pay him a considerable fee. I was forced to sell my house, but
did not get as much as I had hoped because of legal fees involved, and
since my wife did not fancy living in two rooms, she left me, and sued
for divorce on grounds of cruelty.
My lawyer strongly recommended that I defend the action, which I
lost, the costs being awarded to my wife, and as I left the court I
tripped on a broken paving-stone and dislocated my hip. My barrister,
who had seen the incident, immediately initiated a negligence suit
against Westminster Council, who not only won, but also successfully
counterclaimed on the grounds that my hip had struck a litter-bin as I
fell which was damaged beyond repair.
So was my hip; but the Medical Defence Union, defending the doctor I
had been advised to sue for malpractice, employed the services of three
QC's, and I had no chance, since I was now heavily overdrawn and could
only afford to defend the action myself. The case ran for three weeks,
due to all the time I spent limping backwards and forwards across the
I am about to go bankrupt. What I want to know is, is it possible to
sue a barrister?