The Letter Of The Law

Reading & Writing

A curious little story by Paula Cocozza in the Guardian today: A care home manager has been fined £1,118.62 after he paid an £804 debt to his accountant with five crates of 1p and 2p coins.

According to the Royal Mint, 1p and 2p coins are legal tender only if you are paying for something costing 20p or less. You can spend up to £5 in 5p or 10p coins, or up to £10 each in 50p and 20p pieces. Pound coins are legal tender for any amount, so Mr Fitzpatrick should have paid with 774 £1 coins, 20 50p pieces, 50 20p pieces, 50 10p pieces and 100 5p pieces.

This reminds me of AP Herbert’s wonderful ‘Misleading Cases’.

Alan Patrick Herbert is out of print now, and should have more readers. Herbert served in two world wars, survived Gallipoli, was a longstanding member of parliament and a social reformer who worked to end outdated divorce and obscenity laws, and was knighted by Churchill. He wrote the lyrics to popular songs and shows, and once highlighted the complexity of the British licensing laws by accusing the House of Commons of selling liquor without a licence.

This interest in the absurdities of the legal system caused him to write the Misleading Cases, six volumes that operate on a wonderfully simple premise; a judge and a defendant square off against one another in a series of skirmishes designed to test the limits of the law.
Albert Haddock is a tireless everyman who would test the patience of a saint; he makes out a cheque on a cow and leads it to the office of the Collector of Taxes. ‘Was the cow crossed?’ No, your Worship, it was an open cow.’ The question is, did he break the law?

Haddock rows the wrong way up a flooded street, and is arrested. Haddock has his wineglass pinched by a waiter, and sues for damages. Haddock argues his way out of a charge of obstruction by referring to an obscure point in the Magna Carta. The cases were fictional, but were sometimes reported in the press as fact.

Along the way, big issues were aired and serious political points were scored. What is the meaning of education? What exactly are politicians? How much freedom do we really have? Herbert’s tone is light, but the questions give one pause to think. ‘Misleading Cases’ aired as a television series (now typically lost by the BBC) that ran for three seasons in the 1960s, with Roy Dotrice as Haddock and the wonderful Alistair Sim as the judge. Sim is exasperated but clearly an admirer of the defendant’s knowledge of his rights.

‘People must not do things for fun,’ Herbert warns. ‘There is no reference to fun in any act of parliament.’ Read Herbert and bring back the fun.

6 comments on “The Letter Of The Law”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    Lovely. The same rule about coinage applies in Canada. I think it’s to prevent the taking of revenge as you describe above. Of course, we’ve stopped producing pennies now, so that one disappears.

  2. agatha hamilton says:

    I am so glad you reminded me about A P Herbert, he was a complete charmer.

  3. Gretta says:

    I will need to do some research of this AP Herbert fellow. He sounds like an absolute gem. And I wish those tv shows still existed(hopefully they will miraculously turn up in someon’s shed or attic), as Alistair Sim was also an absolute gem. Can just picture him as the Judge.

  4. Timbo says:

    Just did a quick check, and the AP Herbert book appears still to be in print, courtesy of Capuchin Classics…

    and is also available via the usual source…

    However did we manage without Google?

    PS just started on the first of the Bryant and May books. Enjoying this already!

  5. Dan Terrell says:

    Hummm? Cow cash? I don’t know….

  6. Roger says:

    ‘People must not do things for fun,’ Herbert warns. ‘There is no reference to fun in any act of parliament.’

    ‘Haddock rows the wrong way up a flooded street, and is arrested. ‘
    The complication is: is it a street, where traffic must keep to the left, or a waterway, where traffic must keep to the right?

    “Allah did not create man so that he could have fun. The aim of creation was for mankind to be put to the test through hardship and prayer. An Islamic regime must be serious in every field. There are no jokes in Islam. There is no humor in Islam. There is no fun in Islam. There can be no fun and joy in whatever is serious.” — Ayatollah Khomeini

    Did the Ayatollah escape from one of Herbert’s cases?

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