How much do you know about the law? The answer of course is that you don't know much. Nobody knows much about the law. That's the whole point of the law - to be so baffling and mysterious that not even top judges and lawyers know much about it. If small gatherings of law lords can't agree on anything, what chance have we got?
So starting today I am going to bring you a series of little tests on the state of English law. This is not to teach you about the law, but to point out how very little you do know and to increase your respect for the majesty and unknowability of the law. The first set of test questions is all about animals and the law, and is based on three recent court cases. Here we go!
1) Mr Threlfall of Willesden had a long-running dispute with his neighbour, Mr Jacobs. The cause of the dispute is immaterial; what matters is the mode of revenge chosen by Mr Jacobs. Knowing that Mr Threlfall disliked dogs, and was even quite scared of the bigger kinds, Mr Jacobs proceeded on a campaign of capturing a series of stray dogs, then putting collars on them and releasing them again. These collars all had one thing in common; they bore a metal tag on which was written a made-up name for the dog and Mr Threlfall's very real name and address. The result was that whenever one of these stray dogs was caught and brought in, it was returned to Mr Threlfall. The constant stream of unknown dogs being brought to his door was more than he could stand, and he might well have gone round the bend if he had not had his suspicions that Mr Jacobs was involved in this stray dog campaign.
He went on a round of all the local pet shops and soon found one which had sold an unexpectedly high quantity of dog collars recently.
'Do you know who bought them?' he asked.
' Yes, a Mr Threlfall,' said the pet shop man.'I know that was his name, because he also had a large quantity of dog tags engraved with his name and address.'
'What did this Mr Threlfall look like?' said Mr Threlfall.
The observant pet shop man gave an accurate description of Mr Jacobs, and very soon Mr Threlfall had gone to his solicitor to get him to lay charges against Mr Jacobs. But what was Mr Jacobs actually guilty of? Which of the following could he be charged with?
a) Falsely imprisoning a stray dog.
b) Falsely uttering another man?s address.
c) Cruelty to neighbours.
d) Conspiring to give false information to a registered animal shop.
e) Giving a dog a bad name.
2. Mr Ieuan Williams, a small-time Welsh burglar, was caught in his house with the proceeds of a burglary he had committed the night before, including a rare parrot. The parrot was produced in court at Cardiff as evidence, and the owner identified the parrot as his based on the fact that the parrot could utter several identifiable phrases, including 'Rhodri Morgan was cheated!'.
The defence argued in favour of Mr Ieuan Williams, the accused burglar, that all evidence in the court had to be given in either Welsh or English, on request, and they therefore demanded that the parrot also parade his vocabulary in Welsh. As the parrot was unable to do this, they claimed a mistrial.
Well, can an animal be required to give his evidence in Welsh?
And can he be sued by Tony Blair for uttering malicious and libellous comments on the election of a Welsh boss figure?
3. Mr Whistler, a Cumberland farmer, was out with his gun one day looking for rabbits when he spotted a fox two fields away and shot it. Unfortunately, it was a tame fox belonging to a Mr Kidwelly, who was out for a walk with it; the fox had been trained not to attack sheep or poultry and to walk tamely off the lead. Mr Kidwelly was so incensed that he determined to sue Mr Whistler for shooting his pet. His solicitor, however, was of the opinion that he would never manage to persuade the court that anyone should assume that a fox was a pet.
'I have an alternative line of thought,' he told his client. 'I have inspected the site of the unfortunate shooting and I have noticed that although Mr Whistler was standing on his own land at the time, and the fox was also on his land, he actually shot across territory belonging to someone else. If we can prove that the bullet passed through air space not belonging to him, I think we can get him on all sorts of gun infringements!'
Was there any truth in this? Or was it just the usual sort of hot air talked by lawyers when they're up against it?
I'd like to give you the correct answers to these three. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a 'correct' answer in English law. That's what English law is all about!
If you're beginning to get the idea, we'll have another test paper soon.
The Independent Monday March 22 1999