In the vast sea of UK case law examples, there are a few that stand out. Whether it be due to their unexpected nature, or historical importance, these are some of the cases that will predominate in a law student’s education. From criminal law cases to commercial law cases – these case law examples will consolidate your passion for law.
This case is documented as the first to establish the modern law of negligence. The law surrounding negligence at the time was only considered valid in the instance of a contract. In this case, a contract had not been established.
The claimant, Donoghue, brought a claim for personal injury against the manufacturer of a bottle of ginger beer. Unknown to her, that specific bottle included the remnants of a decomposed snail. Donoghue fell ill as a result with severe gastroenteritis.
Donoghue v Stevenson brought about the rule, penned by Lord Atkin, that you are “to take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions that you can reasonably foresee would be likely to injure your neighbour.” However, even more famously, the case brought about the so-called ‘neighbour principle’. This principle sees a ‘neighbour’ being anyone that was closely affected by one’s actions, and that should have been considered when these actions were carried out.
The case had a huge significance in the advancement of British tort law. The government saw the case as an issue of public health and tightened the laws around it as a result.
This relatively recent supreme court case is perhaps most memorable because of its shock factor. In the modern-day rise of the #MeToo movement and support for survivors of sexual crime, it is almost impossible to believe that it was not until the early 90s that the matrimonial exception to rape was removed from law. This meant that from 1991 onwards, it was no longer a defence to ra case that, the conception that “by marriage a wife gives her irrevocable consent to sexual intercourse with her husband under all circumstances” was (and is of course still) “quite unacceptable.”
This change in rape law came after centuries of unpunished sexual crimes. The allowance of marital rape under English Common law is believed to date all the way back to 1736 Sir Matthew Hale’s Historia Placitorum Coronæ. In it, Hale stated: “the husband cannot be guilty of a rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife, for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given herself up to her husband, consent which she cannot retract”.
This case became the benchmark for all future contract law and consumer protection cases. In 1891, England was being swept by the Russian flu, a deadly subtype of Influenza. But suddenly, there was hope – under the name of the Carbolic Smoke Ball Company.
The Carbolic Ball consisted of a rubber ball filled with powdered carbolic acid, and a tube which the user would inhale through. When the ball was squeezed the powder would enter a user’s nostrils, flushing out any infection, according to its inventor. But, as with any drug, the company first needed to text the efficacy of their product on willing participants. So, in November 1891, they printed an advert across UK newspapers asking for participants to human testing, with a £100 reward.
Louisa Carlill was just one of the readers attracted by the ad. For two months, she used the smoke ball three times a day. However, in spite of her efforts, Mrs. Carlill still caught the flu. And, to the surprise of her solicitor husband, Mrs. Carlill never received her reward.
In court, the company tried to excuse their hiccup by suggesting that the newspaper advert was never a ‘promise’ made to their potential users. However, their defence was unsuccessful, leading to significant changes being made to contract and consumer protection laws alike.
In medical law, one of the biggest moral and ethical considerations is the level of competency to make medical decisions found in patients. Something which is often debated more fiercely though is to what extent children and minors have the competence to consent to medical examination and treatment.
In this case, Gillick was a mother with daughters under 16. She sought a declaration that a doctor could not prescribe any contraceptives to girls under 16 without parental knowledge or consent.
The House of Lords disagreed and the idea of “Gillick competence” was born. The court held that, provided a child under 16 has the requisite maturity and intelligence to understand the nature and effects of the treatment, they should be allowed the legal competence to consent themselves.
The Gillick decision came after deliberations on whether a minor’s consent can outweigh the notion of ‘parental rights.’ In the end, the court decided that ‘parental rights’ did not actually exist, but that parents were held under obligation by law to safeguard and make decisions in the best interest of their children. Thus, in cases of minors being deemed responsible enough to consent to treatment, parents do not have any power under the law to veto their decision.
In this case, a lawsuit was brought by McDonald’s Corporation against two environmental activists, David Morris and Helen Steel. The case itself lasted two and a half years but the overall lasted more than 10 years.
From 1986 onwards, a leaflet entitled “What’s wrong with McDonald’s? Everything they don’t want you to know” was in circulation as part of an anti-McDonalds campaign ran by Greenpeace London. The leaflet accused McDonald’s of, amongst other things, being responsible for Third World starvation and exploiting children. Subsequently, a case was brought by McDonald’s against the producers of the leaflet, three of whom apologised whilst Morris and Steel fought on, denying their involvement in the contents of the leaflets.
The judge, who sat without a jury, rejected the claims in the leaflet and ruled that the two had libelled the corporation ordering damages to be paid. The two refused to pay the money and McDonald’s did not pursue payment.
In 2004, Morris and Steel brought a case against the UK government at the European Court of Human Rights claiming that their lack of legal aid breached their Article 5 rights under the ECHR. Subsequently, the court ruled unanimously that they had been denied a fair trial.
This case is so famous that a documentary titled “McLibel” exists about it.
In this slightly ridiculous case, a policeman was giving directions to the defendant to move his car elsewhere when he accidentally drove onto the policeman’s foot. When the policeman shouted at the defendant to move the car, the defendant turned the engine off and refused to move.
This case makes a point concerning the requirement of both actus reus (act) and mens rea (intention) to be present for a crime to take place. Fagan argued that when he made the actus reus, he had no men’s rea as it was an accident, but when he obtained mens rea, there was no corresponding actus reus.
The basic ruling in this case was that the argument of Fagan was unnecessarily pedantic. Whilst it is agreed that omission cannot establish an assault, the actus reus of driving onto the foot and deciding to remain there constituted a continuing criminal act which was present when the mens rea occurred. Thus, Fagan’s conviction was upheld.
This case is particularly relevant with regard to the legal changes under Brexit. The case was brought on by a company of Spanish fishermen against the UK government. The fishermen claimed that the UK had breached European law.
The UK required for the majority of a boat’s owners to be UK nationals in order to be able to register it in the UK, and therefore be able to fish freely on UK territory. Essentially, the case started an ongoing debate over which institution had legislative supremacy – the UK Parliament or the EU Court of Justice. In European courts, it had been stated many times that the EU Court of Justice had primacy over the UK Parliament. But, occasionally, laws from the two parties would overlap, leaving companies such as Factortame in difficulty.
This iconic case sparked a moral and legal debate over whether it is permissible to surgically sever conjoined twins. In cases such as Jodie and Mary’s, one of the twins was much stronger than the other; together, they would meet an untimely death. But, if they were to undergo a severing, Jodie could make a full recovery – with a 94% chance of survival. However, this meant that Mary would die.
The twins’ parents opposed the surgery, and it was doctors who brought their case into court, asking whether their separation would be a more ethical alternative to their predictably short, and likely difficult lives.
In the end, it was decided that the parents’ faith or wishes would not be overriding in such cases. It was agreed upon that the death of the weaker twin would always be a ‘palliative, sympathetic’ one similar to euthanasia.
One of the most important criminal law cases to consider is the case of R v Dudley and Stephens (1884). This case concerned a group of four men who had been stranded at sea in a small lifeboat, with only a limited amount of food and water rations. To survive, the group had agreed to kill and eat the cabin boy, Richard Parker. After their rescue, the men were charged with murder. The court held that in cases of necessity, the defence of self-defence was available, although it was ultimately rejected in this case. The decision of this case has been influential in shaping the law of homicide and its defences.
The case of R v Rimmington (2006) is also an important criminal law case to consider. This case concerned the right to silence in the face of police questioning. The defendant in the case was accused of criminal damage and was warned that his silence could be used against him in court. The court ultimately held that a defendant’s right to remain silent should be respected, and that it was wrong for the police to use a defendant’s silence against them in court.
Words: Ariana Serafinceanu
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