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The UK’s most important legal battles: past and present

19th September 2017

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With its long history and ancient institutions, the UK has seen its fair share of landmark court decisions and important legal battles. The impact of these cases cannot be overstated and have helped to shape the country we are today. The UK’s legal system is respected the world over and has itself influenced many other countries, making a British in-house legal job a much sought after position. There are many cases which we could discuss here, but for the purpose of this article we have tried to restrict ourselves to discussing only a few, just some of the UK’s most important legal battles of both the past and present.

Donoghue v Stevenson

Known to law students as the ‘snail in the bottle’ case, 1932’s ‘Donoghue v Stevenson’ created our modern concept of negligence. The case involved Mrs Donoghue who found a dead snail in a bottle of ginger beer – falling ill as a result. Today the case is best known for Lord Atkin’s infamous ‘neighbour’ principle, declaring that we should take reasonable care to avoid harming those that we can foresee being affected, establishing when we owe duties to one another. This case is largely responsible for the transition of accidents and injuries into claims and compensation.

Belmarsh 9

‘A and others v Secretary of State for the Home Department’, also known as ‘Belmarsh 9’ (named after Belmarsh prison), is a hugely important UK human rights case that was heard before the House of Lords. Belmarsh 9 was decided in 2004 after a challenge to the Labour policy of indefinitely detaining foreign terrorist suspects without charge. The verdict being that the state acted illegally in the detention of prisoners at Belmarsh. The ‘Belmarsh 9’ case set the boundary between civil liberties and national security with Lord Hoffman stating: “The real threat to the life of the nation… comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these.”

R v Ahluwalia

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The case of Kiranjit Ahluwalia came one year after martial rape was declared rape in 1991 and led to another landmark decision in the realm of domestic abuse. Ahluwalia had been abused for over a decade by her violent husband Deepak and was convicted for murder when she set her husband on fire as he slept. Justice for Women, a campaign organisation that supports and advocates on behalf of women who have killed or fought back against violent men, worked on Kiranjit’s campaign with Southall Black Sisters.

Justice for Women describe the reason why this woman was ultimately failed by the legal system.

“A key reason for the failure of Kiranjit's plea of provocation was the bias towards male behaviour in such cases. The time that had elapsed between Deepak's last attack on Kiranjit and her retaliation (a few hours) was deemed to be a “cooling down” period and not a “boiling over” period as her defence suggested. Men tend to react instantaneously when provoked, whereas women cannot do so in the context of male violence because of men's greater physical strength and size.”

A re-trial ultimately recognised the effects of long-term domestic abuse and the building anger that led Ahluwalia to finally snap and kill her husband. Based on diminished responsibility, Ahluwalia’s conviction was reduced to manslaughter and she was then freed. The verdict was celebrated by champions of women’s rights and domestic abuse groups.

Darcy v Allin

‘Edward Darcy Esquire v Thomas Allin of London Haberdasher’, aka ‘Darcy v Allin’, is widely known as the ‘Case of the Monopolies’. In 1603 this became a landmark legal battle in England and established that the exclusive right to produce any article (also known as a monopoly) was improper. Thomas Allin, who wanted to make and sell his own cards, was sued by Edward Darcy after Darcy received a licence from Queen Elizabeth to import and sell all playing cards in England. The court ruled in favour of Allin, judging that the Queen’s grant of monopoly was invalid. This legal battle has huge significance as it was the first court to rule that state-established monopolies are inherently harmful and opposed to law.

Entick v Carrington

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‘Entick v Carrington’ is a historic case in English law that helped establish the civil liberties of individuals and limited the reach of executive power. When messengers of the King broke into the house of a writer in the 18th century, seizing property and causing £2000 of damage, the writer sued the messengers for trespassing. Lord Camden ruled that the men had no right to enter the house. The battle between the state and the individual has been an ever constant throughout history and this 1765 case has become hugely influential around the world including being a motivator for the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution. The US Supreme Court described the ruling as a “great judgment, one of the landmarks of English liberty, one of the permanent monuments of the British Constitution.”

Attorney-General v De Keyser's Royal Hotel Limited

Decided in 1920 by the House of Lords, ‘Attorney-General v De Keyser's Royal Hotel Limited’ ruled that royal prerogative does not allow the Crown to confiscate a subject’s land or buildings for administrative purposes while defending the realm without issuing compensation. The case was brought when De Keyser's Royal Hotel Ltd, the owner of a London hotel, claimed compensation when their hotel was occupied by the armed forces during WWI. After an appeal, the court ruled that that the hotel’s owner was entitled to compensation as provided by the Defence Act 1842. The case was another crucial ruling in establishing the right of the individual against overwhelming interference by the state.

So there you have it, these are just some of the UK’s most important and influential legal battles, and we hope that our brief walk through history has given you a desire to discover more about our country’s vast legal heritage. The past truly does weigh heavy on the present, as all those looking to get their start, either with an in-house legal career or otherwise, are bound to appreciate.


Image Credit: Joseph Mischyshyn