Times Law Reports: from bottled snails to cannibalism

From The Times
June 19, 2008

200 years of Law Reports are now available online with the launch of The Times Archive. Irish patriot Sir Roger Casement, who was hanged after being tried for high treason in 1916 The Times Law Reports treat with equal respect the famous — such as Sir Roger Casement, Tony Greig and Michael Douglas — and those remembered only for the judgment of the court after a dispute, accident or act of wickedness led to their conduct being analysed in civil or criminal proceedings.

The esoteric and sometimes bizarre content of these reports accounts for their popularity with lay people as well as lawyers. In The Family Story, Lord Denning recalled that Geoffrey Fisher, when Archbishop of Canterbury, “told me that he always read” them “every day”. Regular readers know they will usually be entertained, and sometimes astonished, by legal developments.Now, with availability online of the complete contents of the newspaper from 1785 to 1985, readers will be able to explore and savour the classic law reports of the past two centuries — as well as accounts of the most famous trials of the day, from Oscar Wilde, Derek Bentley and Lord Chief Justice Goddard to Penguin Books defending Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The cases that changed Britain: 1785-1869

Part one of our pick of the 100 cases that have most shaped modern British law — including the original Times law reports. Law reports have not always been held in the high esteem with which they are regarded now. Isaac Espinasse was a law reporter working at the end of the 18th century. In a 1953 case in the Court of Appeal, Lord Justice Denning commented on the inadequacy of his work, noting: “It is said that he only heard half of what went on and reported the other half.” No such complaint could be made about those who have written and edited The Times Law Reports over the centuries. Readers can now see the skill with which the classic cases of the common law were reported; and all lawyers will have their favourites.

You can read the 1884 report of R v Dudley and Stephens, about the two shipwrecked sailors convicted of murder after killing the cabin boy and eating his flesh. Or Donoghue v Stevenson, reported in 1932, where the House of Lords established that the defendant manufacturer of ginger beer owed a duty of care to the consumer who complained that the bottle contained the remains of a snail. Or Associated Provincial Picture Houses Ltd v Wednesbury Corporation, reported in 1947: the foundation of the public law duty to exercise discretionary powers in a reasonable manner. In her excellent biography of John Mortimer, QC, Valerie Grove refers to the Times report in 1922 of a divorce case in which John’s father, Clifford, was counsel. Mr Justice Hill commented that he was “not sufficiently up in modern slang” to know whether the husband’s comment to the wife, “stop your grizzling”, was “an affectionate term or not”. The report continues: “Mr Mortimer: ‘I can assure your Lordship it is not a term of endearment.’ (Laughter).” In 1957, the law report noted that Mr Justice Stable, having listened to the submissions of counsel, asked: “Is one to abandon every vestige of common sense in approaching this matter?” Counsel replied: “Yes, my Lord.”

Social change is faithfully recorded. In 1994, under the headline “Sex change for ‘Lord’ Justice”, the law report informed readers that although “formally” still to be known as “Lord Justice”, as required by the Supreme Court Act 1981, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss would henceforth be referred to in court as “My Lady, Lady Justice Butler-Sloss”. And the law reports provide their invaluable service, however distasteful the subject matter. Last year, a judgment of the High Court was reported under the less than enticing headline, “Belch raises special reasons issue”. The reports have a judicial seal of approval. In 1889 Lord Esher, Master of the Rolls, announced: “We have said that we will accept The Times Law Reports, because they are reports by barristers who put their names to their reports.” Lawyers and judges trust The Times Law Reports and admire the skill of the reporters who identify, in limited space, the pith of what the judiciary, sometimes unclearly and always at much greater length, has struggled to express. There is no question of judges echoing Chief Justice Holt’s complaint in 1704 about the inadequacies of another set of reports, that “they will make us appear to posterity for a parcel of blockheads”. On the contrary, The Times Law Reports, by the lucidity of their expression, are often more persuasive than the original judgments. I can think of only one occasion when the contents were unintelligible to most readers: in 1998, a Practice Direction was published in Welsh (as well as in English).

Until the 1960s, the newspaper reports covered all judgments of importance, and many that were not, and often included generous chunks of the legal argument. The enormous increase in the number of judges and volume of cases they decide, as well as the regrettably reduced space reserved for the law reports, means that the service is no longer as comprehensive. Still, on station platforms up and down the country every morning, as lawyers wait for their trains into their offices and chambers, they open their copy of The Times, turn first to the law reports, and learn about the latest judicial pronouncements. In an ever changing world, it is comforting to know that, as Lord Justice Sedley observed in March last year, the Court of Appeal “spent two days hearing argument on the meaning of ‘is’ and ‘where’,” and that the result was published in The Times Law Reports.

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