Close Encounters of the Third Kind: the law, a funny old business

Posted on 7th Dec 2012 in Events

More Weird CasesThough law is a serious matter, our perception of it is at least partially informed by humorous incidents. And often it is only by making fun of the law that a serious point can be made about its failings. These were among the observations which emerged from the third of the ICLR Encounters, Making Light of the Law, which consisted of a panel discussion between Professor Gary Slapper, author of the Weird Cases column and books, Tim Kevan, author of the BabyBarista blog and books, and Alex Williams, who draws the Queen’s Counsel cartoons in The Times. The discussion took place at the Law Society on Monday night, and was filmed (as are all ICLR Encounters). Edited highlights will be viewable from the Encounters website soon. [STOP PRESS: video now available.]

Gary Slapper began by introducing his fellow panellists and recounting some of the incidents which, over the last 20 years, he has collected in his “Weird Cases” column in the law section of The Times each Thursday, and now republished in book form in two anthologies, Weird Cases (2009) and More Weird Cases (2011) (reviewed here).

Typical of these was the case of Wallace Weatherhold, a 63-year-old airboat captain in Florida, who had his hand bitten off in an alligator attack and was punished for the criminal offence of “illegally feeding an alligator”. After the hand was found in the alligator’s stomach, Mr Weatherholt was arrested (without the use of handcuffs), charged, convicted and sentenced to a year of probation, one year suspension of his captain’s licence and a $500 fine.

BabyBaristaThere was also the case of a man in Georgia who was a habitual user of cocaine, marijuana, synthetic heroin and hookers, and who carried two loaded handguns during drug deals. He lost his day job after being caught out in a sting operation, but what made it an especially problematic case was that that job was being a federal judge.

Tim Kevan joined the Bar and practised for ten years before giving up his day job to become a full time writer. Having penned a number of legal textbooks, he decided to turn his hand to fiction, aiming to be the next John Grisham. But in spite of himself, what emerged was the tale, told in a series of hilarious blog postings, of a young, ambitious, and distinctly Machiavellian pupil barrister. The blog was taken up by The Times, but moved to the Guardian a couple of years later, amidst protests about the Murdoch “paywall”. (Alex Williams, also a member of the legal Times Team, noted later in the discussion that he, along with other contributors, had to pay for access to the online newspaper.)

Typical of the posts, later incorporated in the second of the BabyBarista novels, Law & Peace, is the following, entitled “Rehabilitation of Offenders”, which Gary read with relish (and we reproduce with glee):

TheVamp was complaining today about how pointless it had been for the judge to have sent her negligent doctor client to prison. ‘I mean, it’s not like he’s about to re-offend,’ she said. ‘And it probably costs more to keep a prisoner for a year than it does to train a pupil barrister,’ said TheCreep. ‘Yes, and all they learn is how to lie, thieve and generally live off the backs of honest, upstanding members of society,’ said OldSmoothie. ‘As well as the little tricks which will keep them out of trouble on some ridiculous technicality or other,’ said UpTights. ‘And that’s before you add the shady network of contacts they get to tap into,’ said OldSmoothie. ‘You’re so right,’ said TheCreep. ‘I mean, how on earth can they be expected to come out as normal, well-balanced individuals with that kind of legacy?’ ‘Can’t be much better for those in prison,’ said TheBusker with a wry smile.”

Commenting on the idea of “making light of the law” Tim said it sounded rather noble to set out to use humour to make serious points about the law, but it usually happened the other way round: there may occasionally be serious points which come out of it, but they start as something silly. Writing fiction was liberating, because you could make fun of things that were absurd or ridiculous, like a pompous or overbearing judge, without getting into trouble.

As for the suggestion that all his characters were based on real people, he roundly denied it, except to the extent of impliedly admitting that BabyBarista’s sneaking regard for TheBusker, who never loses a case, and is about Tim’s own age, may not be insignificant.

Tim recounted the relief and gratitude both he and Alex Williams felt when, having each admired the other’s work, but avoided it lest they find themselves tempted to pinch ideas, they finally got in touch and agreed to work together (and pinch each others ideas). He felt Alex brought the characters to life in his drawings, and tempered with comedy their darker nature. Although Bloomsbury, who publish the BabyBarista novels, were not at first keen on Alex Williams’s style, they relented in time for the second volume, Law and Peace (2011).

Alex Williams courtroom fencingOur own connection with Tim is that he also writes (as you will have seen on this blog) BabyBarista sponsored postings for ICLR, extolling the virtues of our online platform in a soft outer wrapping of legally relevant humour.

In his introduction to Alex Williams, Gary Slapper reported that,  having been offered a pupillage at 12 King’s Bench Walk, Alex had decided to abandon the bar for a glittering career as a Hollywood animator, subsequently working on such blockbusters as The Lion King, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Robots. His weekly cartoon strip, Queen’s Counsel, features a cast of regulars including Sir Geoffrey Bentwood QC, who sends judges and juries to sleep while not so secretly longing to be promoted to the bench; his sidekick, Edward Longwind, who takes lessons in pomposity from Sir Geoffrey; and Richard Loophole of Loophole & Fillibuster does his best to bankrupt his clients, works his associates to death and occasionally pretends to remember some of the law he learnt in law school. At the mercy of them all is Mr Sprocket, the luckless liltigant, whose lawyers will not rest until they have spent all of his money.

Alex recounted how, as a pupil barrister, he was terrified of having to get up and speak in court; and it was therefore brilliant when a hearing got cancelled or postponed, and he could get paid and go home without having to say anything, except that you then had to apologise to your client for all the wasted expense.

Sprocket
Although initially the material was based on his own experience, once he’d left the Bar he had to rely increasingly on other people for ideas, including as we have seen Tim, and also Alex’s recently married wife, a solicitor. This explains the number of cartoons featuring an overworked solicitor trying to remember why it was she went into the profession in the first place.

A few of Alex’s cartoons have featured The Law Reports, including most recently:

Mummy Gray

These were among the images Alex showed on a screen, which together with Tim’s extracts and some more of Gary’s weird cases, made for a thoroughly entertaining but also quite thought provoking evening.

Among the cases discussed, you may be interested to know, were Reg v Collins [1973] QB 100[1972] 3 WLR 243, in which Lord Justice Edmund Davies said that if the facts had been “put into a novel or portrayed on the stage, they would be regarded as being so improbable as to be unworthy of serious consideration and as verging at times on farce.” It is the case every law student knows, about burglary, and the question whether a certain part of a naked man’s anatomy had entered via the open window of the victim’s bedroom before she had given her (mistaken) consent to his being there.

Another case was that of Reg v Brown (Anthony) [1994] 1 AC 212[1993] 2 WLR 556 which was weird because, as Joshua Rozenberg noted from the audience (having reported the case) there was a strange disconnect between the outrageousness of the sado-masochistic activities which the police had originally assumed were non-consensual, and the ordinariness of the participants in the sessions involved.

Case law is not often funny or light, but there are many cases which, like these, are certainly weird. If you know of any others and would like to share your thoughts on them, or on the whole idea of humour in law, please comment here below. 

As noted above, a video showing highlights of the event will be posted soon on the ICLR Encounters website. [STOP PRESS: video now available.] Look out for that, and for news of future ICLR events in 2013.