Cases from across UK history which still shape the law today


Entick v Carrington, 1765

Author and schoolmaster John Entick was suspected of writing a libellous pamphlet against the government. In response, the secretary of state sent Nathan Carrington, along with a group of other king’s men, to search Entick’s house for evidence. Entick then sued the men for trespass.

The court decided that the secretary of state did not have the legal authority to issue a search warrant, and therefore Carrington had trespassed. This case reflects the principle that “no man is above the law” – not even the secretary of state. To this day, law enforcement agencies may only do what the law allows.

Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Co, 1893

Mrs Carlill sued the manufacturer of the carbolic smoke ball – a device for preventing colds and flu – which had promised a reward of £100 for any one catching flu following the use of its product but then refused to pay out.

The court decided that this promise, together with Mrs Carlill’s use of the product as directed, amounted to a legally binding contract and she was entitled to the reward. The case explores many of the principles that must be present in modern day contracts, such as offer and acceptance, before we can make legally enforceable agreements between each other. Yet this most famous of cases may never have been brought at all, had Mrs Carlill not been married to a solicitor.

Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Co, 1893

Donoghue and Stevenson, 1932

In a case originating in Scotland, Mrs Donoghue was given a bottle of ginger beer which allegedly contained the decomposed remains of a snail. She claimed to have suffered shock and gastroenteritis as a result. But as she had not bought the drink herself, she had no contract on which to sue. Nevertheless, the court extended the law of negligence to require reasonable care towards those likely to be affected by a person’s or company’s actions. Was there really a snail? We don’t know for sure, as Mrs Donoghue died before the evidence could be heard.

Fagan v Metropolitan Police Commissioner, 1969

To be guilty of a criminal offence, there often needs to be unlawful act accompanied by a guilty state of mind, such as a criminal intent. So, having accidentally driven his car onto a policeman’s foot, did Mr Fagan commit an assault when he decided not to remove it?

Mr Fagan suggested not because he had no criminal intent at the time the car first went on to the foot, but the court held that deciding to leave the car there was a combination of act and intention, which meant he was guilty of the offence.

The Belmarsh case, 2004

The Human Rights Act empowered judges to review acts of parliament, to check if they are compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. Using this power, the House of Lords ruled that a statute which allowed terrorist suspects to be detained indefinitely without trial breached the suspects’ human rights.

The case shows how modern courts ask not just whether government action is authorised by law, but also whether it is compatible with our rights. Parliament amended the law as a result.


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