Don't count your legal chickens until the law lets them hatch
For those unfamiliar with the legal system, a trip to court can put them on a steep learning curve.
Most would-be litigants fondly believe that their dispute will find its way in front of a judge promptly; that once there it will be dealt with quickly; and that a judgment in their favour will be given shortly thereafter.
Once their case reaches the courts, these novices rapidly have to grapple with some new concepts, as illustrated below:
THE JUDGE'S LIST - Barrister: 'The judge's list is very full this morning.He has five matters on at l0am and we are listed with three other cases at l0.30am. The usher says that one has settled. The parties in the other case are still talking but if it is effective it will go for an hour and a half.' Client: 'What does this mean?'
Barrister: 'You will be lucky if your case starts today.'
THE ADJOURNMENT - Barrister: 'The judge has called counsel into her room. She does not think the two days allocated will be sufficient to hear your case. She thinks it will take a week and will adjourn to a future date. Your solicitor is checking availability with the court office but it does not look good.'
Client: 'What are you telling me?'Barrister: 'Your case will not be heard before Christmas.'
PART-HEARD - Judge: 'Well, this case has not run according to its timetable and I know I have asked a lot of questions, but it is important that I understand what a purlin is. You are going to need at least another three days and I have other matters in the list. I will have to adjourn this case part-heard.' Client: 'What did he say?' Barrister: 'Your case will not be concluded this year.'
RESERVED JUDGMENT - Judge: 'I have heard a lot of evidence in this case and will not be able to give judgment straight away. I shall reserve my judgment and give it as soon as possible, court commitments permitting.' Client: 'Have we won?'
Barrister: 'You won't know for some time.'
As the fresh-faced litigants'enthusiasm is slowly sapped by the vagaries of the system, they try to take heart from one remaining truth - that their case will ultimately be resolved and that will be an end to it. This last hope can easily be dashed with the throwaway line: 'Of course they could always appeal.'
Yes, it is the ultimate lesson that the hard-won, long-awaited and very expensive first-instance judgment need not necessarily be an end to the matter. They may have to go through it all again before the Court of Appeal.
By the same token, it is worth bearing in mind that the law you read about in these and other pages can be the subject of an appeal. And that what was the position yesterday may not be the case tomorrow. Several cases featured in this column have subsequently been appealed.
In Pride Valley Foods v Hall & Partners (Contract Managers) (AJ 31.8.00), the defendant project manager was held liable to the claimant speciality-bread producer when it failed to record in writing that it had warned the claimant of the dangers of using expanded polystyrene panels when constructing a bakery. The Court of Appeal upheld the judge's findings that the claimant was half to blame for the fire damage, because it had caused the fire hazard in the first place.
Liverpool Roman Catholic Archdiocesan Trustees v Goldberg was the case about the expert who was a lifelong friend of the defendant (AJ 14.6.01).
Nevertheless, his evidence was allowed to go to trial.
At trial, however, the judge took a different view. He held that, as a matter of public policy, expert evidence was inadmissible where there was a relationship between the expert and the defendant, that may be seen as affecting the expert's views.
And finally, do you remember the pigeons (AJ 7.6.01) which fouled the footpath beneath the railway bridge where they roosted? The Court of Appeal recently endorsed the judge's findings that Railtrack was liable for the nuisance and should bear the cost of cleaning up the mess.