The British legal system is known for its strict adherence to the rule of law and its adversarial process. The UK has a standard law system instead of the civil law systems found in many other countries. Common law is based on precedent, so an important part of it is cases that set precedents in particular areas of the law- these are called precedents or “leading cases.” This article reviews three such cases.
a) The first case we look at dates back to 1887 when a woman was charged with stealing goods from her employer’s shop. Her defense was that she had been told by a co-worker that they were abandoned property, but this failed because she did not make any inquiries about ownership before taking them away. This established the principle that if you want to rely on a defense of taking abandoned property, you must make inquiries before moving it- this is called the “Ashford” or “Adequate enquiry” rule.
b) The next case (1957) dealt with the right to silence in criminal cases. The defendant was suspected of being involved in a bank raid but later claimed that the police had beaten him into making a confession. The court decided that normally if this was true, it would be unfair for a defendant to incriminate himself by giving evidence at his trial however, they qualified this decision by saying that if he says anything which might implicate him while on the stand, the prosecution is allowed to challenge him about his previous statements. This qualified decision was later used as the basis for the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which abolished the right of silence in England and Wales. This act has been criticized because it can be seen as affecting defendants’ rights without new safeguards being put in its places, such as a jury trial or more legal aid.
c) The last case (1982) concerned a road traffic accident that caused brain damage to the victim. The defense said that this was relatively minor and did not affect his ability to work; however, the prosecution argued that he could not support himself after leaving the hospital because of his injuries (and so should not be convicted of benefit fraud). The defense’s argument was successful because the judge decided that brain damage was more than just a cut or a bruise, and so, therefore, it did affect his ability to work. This established the principle that you can’t be convicted for physical damage, which is only minor- this is called the “Significant harm” rule.