There have been landmark cases in the history which have changed the very concept the Law is presently studied or interpreted. Following is a brief compilation of such landmark cases retrieved from The Guardian by CSLRA which may be of help for lawyers/law students and even laymen:
Care for thy neighbour:
In 1932 Mrs Donoghue launched the modern law of negligence, after finding her ginger beer less than appealing. Known to generations of law students as the “snail in the bottle” case, it is best known for Lord Atkin’s famous neighbour principle. In declaring we should take reasonable care to avoid harm to those we foresee can be affected, he established when we owe duties to each other. Accidents and injuries were forever to be reshaped into claims and compensation.
Known as the Belmarsh decision, there is no modern case that better sets the boundary between national security and civil liberties. Decided by a panel of nine law lords, the 2004 decision became an important milestone in judges protecting both the rule of law and human rights. In a challenge to the Labour policy of indefinitely detaining foreign terrorist suspects without charge, the majority declared the British state acted illegally and in a discriminatory way. In his powerful rejection, Lord Hoffman stated “The real threat to the life of the nation… comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these.”
Providing the legal backdrop to a decade of EU-scepticism is the 1991 case of Factortame, this case on the rights of Spanish fisherman to fish in British waters is a mainstay on any public law course. It confirmed the priority of European laws over UK acts of parliament and thus struck a blow against parliament’s legal supremacy. In so doing it provoked much constitutional debate about the extent of EU legal powers – and Britain’s relationship with Europe as a whole.
Officially the longest case in English legal history, this ten year David v Goliath libel battle exposed the price of justice when corporations take on individuals. The fast food giant sued green campaigners David Morris and Helen Steel for libel over a stinging pamphlet criticising the their ethical credentials. McDonalds walked away with both a win and a PR disaster. The European court of human rights later declared in 2005 that the pair, who were unfunded and were representing themselves, had been denied their right to a fair trial.
In the year 2000 the plight of conjoined twins made front page news. The question was whether it was justified to separate and knowingly “kill” the weaker Mary in order to save her stronger sister Jodie, given both were destined for a premature death. In spite of parents favouring non-separation, doctors wanted a declaration that such an operation would be lawful. In a maze of ethical and legal conflicts, Lord Justice Ward rather hollowly declared that “this is a court of law, not a court of morals.”
After admitting to sleepless nights, the judges allowed the doctors to separate. Lord Justice Brooke declared the situation as one of necessity, allowing the option of a lesser evil. The stronger twin survived and made a full recovery. The thankfully rare case, otherwise found in philosophy debates, demonstrates the relationship between law and morality, perhaps one of the first questions on a legal theory course.
A year after marital rape was declared rape in 1991, came the case of Kiranjit Ahluwalia, who had been abused for over a decade by a violent husband. She was convicted of murder after setting her husband alight as he slept. In recognising long-term domestic abuse and the possibility of a slow-burn anger that led to her snapping, the case was a cause célèbre for feminist and domestic abuse groups. Though finally the decision in the end was based on diminished responsibility, it was seen as a benchmark for tackling the gender bias in the criminal law and raising public awareness of domestic abuse. Ahluwalia’s conviction was reduced to manslaughter, and she was freed.
International human rights law received a global TV audience in 1998 after former Chilean dictator General Pinochet was arrested in London. Under the rules of universal jurisdiction, he was detained following a Spanish extradition request facing charges of crimes against humanity. The law lords declared that there could be a limit to the immunity enjoyed by heads of states. Though Pinochet was never extradited, the case sent out a strong message about accountability for leaders who commit human rights abuses,before the international criminal court was established.
The case is also well known among lawyers when after the first hearing it was disclosed that that one of the ruling law lords, Lord Hoffmann, was a director of Amnesty International, a party to the cases. The entire hearing had to be repeated to show that “justice must not only be done but be seen to be done.”
The internet age
Injunctions, twitter, privacy and the extra marital activities of footballers were all the rage in early 2011. Nothing struck up more attention than the application for an injunction by Ryan Giggs against the Sun. His name was widely tweeted and the situation became more farcical when MP John Hemming revealed his name in the House of Commons. The debate forced the law to react to an age of the internet and social media. The case followed a long line of celebrity court battles in the 2000’s, and became another marker in the debate between balancing freedom of expression and the right to a private life.
From across the Atlantic arguably no case better demonstrates the political and social impact of judicial decisions. The landmark decision in 1973 upheld a woman’s right to an abortion. Synonymous with abortion in the USA. Hundreds of thousands march on the US supreme court on the anniversary of the decision each year.
Featured Image: Express.co.uk