Books: A Point of View: State of Law |
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State of Law : on the culture of compensation

(S03E03, broadcast 21st and 23rd March 2008)

"A grape of wrath"

Last week the man who wanted £300,000 compensation because he slipped on a grape in the car park of his local branch of Marks & Spencer lost his case. Good news for the rule of law, perhaps, but bad news for those of us whose lives have been blighted by injuries which were never our responsibility. I wept for the man who slipped on the grape, because three hundred grand was the least he had coming. Here was an accountant who, before his shoe made contact with the grape in question, was able to charge £225 an hour for his financial services. After he descended from the lofty parabola into which the grape contact had thrown him, he sustained a rupture to his quadriceps tendon. This rupture led, he said, to a ‘loss of confidence’, which in turn led to ‘adverse psychological effects and depression’, which in turn meant that he was unable to recruit new clients and contacts and charge them £225 an hour. On top of that, he was no longer able to ski, play football or play tennis. He was probably also unable to play Monopoly, which can put a terrific strain on a ruptured quadriceps tendon, especially when you are losing. The accountant lost in a big way and ended up having to pay his legal costs. I have been brooding about this for some time and would now like to tell him that I share his pain, even in the area of my quadriceps tendon, which was practically the only part of my body that I didn’t injure in the accident that still haunts my life.

Interesting that the grape victim should mention skiing, because it was while I was skiing in Switzerland that I sustained an injury entirely due to the carelessness of an organization from which one might have expected more. Not more than £300,000, perhaps, but something. I typed this script without using my thumbs, and here is why. About twenty years ago, both my thumbs were almost dislocated in a skiing accident. If the accident had not happened, I could have typed this script more quickly, and could have typed another in the time saved, thereby restoring my confidence, not to say replenishing my bank balance. I shall be telling the full story of this accident in my fifth volume of Unreliable Memoirs, a work which I am currently composing, to a deadline which I have set according to how quickly, or rather how slowly, I can compose a hundred thousand words using eight fingers.

But a short version of the story will sufficiently indicate that I was blameless in the matter. I was on a black run at Davos and it could be argued that I shouldn’t have been there, owing to my inability to turn in any direction at any speed. But no attempt was made by the responsible authorities to ascertain this fact before I started my descent. And the run was open to the public. There were signs to say that the run was open, and the signs had been placed by those in charge of the resort. The run was needlessly steep. Those in charge had bulldozers available and it was their responsibility to level the mountain during the night. They had not done so and I was doing seventy-five miles per hour when I took off from a bump and landed on my nose a hundred yards further on. The manufacturers of the ski bindings had done their job. With those manufacturers I have no quarrel. The skis came off as they should have done.

But the loops on my ski poles failed to detach themselves from my thumbs as I hit the snow, which was packed tight. No attempt had been made to loosen it and I therefore continued going downhill at high speed in prone contact with the snow, my cries ignored. Instantly I felt an acute loss of confidence, compounded by a searing pain in both thumbs. The loops, which should have been designed to detach themselves like the bindings, put a severe strain on both the intrinsic and extrinsic muscles of each thumb. In both cases, the first dorsal interroseus was irreversibly inflamed, and the flexor pollicis longus was impacted with the extensor pollicis brevis, thereby permanently inhibiting my capacity to reach for my wallet whenever it was my turn to pay for something. I had legitimate hopes that the owners of the resort would be doing that for me from then on, but my case was thrown out by a Swiss German judge who spoke no English except the phrase ‘in your dreams’.

The British judge who so cruelly dashed the hopes of the grape-treading accountant was not necessarily under the influence of the Swiss legal system. The British legal system is still capable of reaching sensible decisions on its own account. Let me overcome my throbbing bilateral pain for a moment and say that the law still has enough majesty to remind us that we are lucky to live in a country with functioning institutions. Nothing will remind the public that if they lived in a country with no laws at all they would be inconceivably worse off than they are now. Most of us have had no experience of living in a lawless society and we therefore find it difficult to imagine.

The British live in a country that has been ruled by law for a long time. What they can’t help noticing is that the law doesn’t always work. When Dickens, in his great novel Bleak House, painted his immortal picture of the chancery court in which your case would remain unresolved for ever, with more and more lawyers taking your money until it was all gone, it wasn’t the law he was against. He was against the law not working.

But the law not working can be quite frightening enough. Admittedly there are newspapers that specialize in encouraging such fears. Often when I read the tabloids I wonder if we might not be living in the last days of the Weimar Republic, until I remember that sometimes when a drunken joy-rider wipes out a family waiting at a bus stop he gets picked up by the police and spoken to quite severely, and might even have his licence withdrawn for a whole year.

But what sometimes saps confidence, inducing an adverse psychological condition, is when the legal system consumes vast amounts of public money in proceedings that seem very slow to proceed. A highly vocal cleric, the enemy of his own religion along with every other aspect of British society except its benefit system, which he drew upon to support his large family, ate up hundreds of thousands of pounds in public money before it was finally decided that he was guilty of incitement to murder. But he had declared himself guilty of that years before. He never said that he wasn’t inciting people to murder. He said that inciting people to murder was all right.

The present inquiry into the death of the Princess of Wales will get through at least £10 million of the taxpayer’s money before it reaches its decision. It was a good sign when the court rejected Mr Fayed’s demand that the Queen should be called as a witness, so as to make up for the absence of testimony from Ming the Merciless of Mongo, Emperor of the Universe. But otherwise the inquiry has been an expensive way of establishing that there was never very much to inquire into except an accident. Whatever happened to those poor children in Jersey plainly wasn’t an accident, and getting to the bottom of the matter will be worth all the money it costs, but how much money will be left over for such a necessary thing when an unnecessary one is allowed to cost so much? Or am I all wrong about the public money? Perhaps it is being continually replaced with the limitless funds generated by schemes to charge people for using their cars to deliver passengers at Heathrow when the passengers should be using the Heathrow Express, which will be jammed to the roof because millions more people every year will want to cram themselves into an Airbus A380 and fly somewhere that doesn’t allow an ex-wife to even think of charging £125 million for four years of marriage. In the end, Lady McCartney was not awarded quite that much of Sir Paul’s money, but she certainly wasted a lot of the court’s time.

If the well really is bottomless, it would be reassuring to be told so. It might be timely if someone in the government could address the House of Commons on that issue. On that issue, and with that scope: the State of the Law, in a state where law rules, or anyway it should. While we’re waiting, we must content ourselves with these occasional outbreaks of what sounds like sweet reason, and base our hopes on those. The latest outbreak we owe to the judge who, in a blessedly short time, concluded that the man whose shoe hit the grape had been subject to an act of God, or let’s call it a grape of wrath.

Certainly that judgement put paid to my own planned venture on the same lines. I had it all worked out. In my local supermarket there is a bin that is always shedding a few blueberries on the floor as clueless people pick up the plastic box by the lid and scatter the contents. Having flagrantly neglected to seal the box shut, the supermarket is incontrovertibly responsible for the spilled blueberries. One of those spilled blueberries is fairly aching for contact with my sandal. I had the trajectories all worked out. Hit the blueberry, up in the air, and I would fly feet first into the manager’s office with the word ‘compensation’ already forming, indeed foaming, on my lips. But the law has spoken, and now I must think again.


Not long after this script was broadcast, a professional acquaintance of mine had to deal with the news that his young daughter, who had been standing with a group of her friends at the side of the road, had been killed by a car that had gone out of control. It soon emerged that the young man at the wheel had been out of control for the whole of his short life, too much of which, mysteriously, had been marked by his possession of a driver’s licence, which no amount of thefts and violations had deprived him of for longer than a few weeks. This time he was actually banned from driving for a while, but the little girl, it should hardly need saying, was subject to a longer penalty. Even now, when I think of her fate, I can’t find the words to evoke my own outrage at the state of the law. As for my acquaintance, when he recovered his ability to think and move, he set about the task of getting the law changed, and by now he is a leading figure in the association of deprived parents that is coming closer all the time to obtaining a result.

Such a task is never easy but perhaps the intricacy of the business has done something to distract him from his grief. The thing to remember — the hardest thing to remember, alas — is that the law’s imperfections are tokens of its necessity, not of its uselessness. Speaking as one who begrudges every penny of his tax money that is spent on continued benefits for hate-preachers so that their sons can grow up to be car-thieves, I would like to see all their rights suspended until they can be put on an airliner to anywhere. But the fact that I would like that so much is just why we need to have the rule of law. The theme kept on cropping up during my period as a broadcaster — there was no lack of stimulus — and I always tried to give that message, if possible without repeating the illustrations. Even if the reader doesn’t spot that the writer has repeated an example, the writer, in order to do so, will usually fudge his construction of the context. Saying it twice almost always involves saying it loosely the second time. Loose talk leads to easy writing and easy writing leads to mediocrity. Nevertheless, in the course of the decades, I was unable to avoid several invocations, in several different media, of Ming the Merciless of Mongo, Emperor of the Universe, and I have a disturbing premonition that he will reappear in one of the last poems I ever write, the waxed tendrils of his long moustache trailing doom at my deathbed. There’s something about the name.