A Tale of Legal Titbits - 'Poor Old Horse'

By guest blogger Chris Butterfield

Bus expert Chris was and still is a bus driver who became a transport solicitor and lecturer before his retirement

My story begins with a telephone call from a client with news of an unhappy accident that could well lead to a summons being issued. While everyone still had a clear recollection of what had happened, I met with the company, the driver and a mechanical expert, to discuss how the matter might be addressed.

Statements were taken, I attended an interview with the police, their plans of the scene of the accident were produced and considered. And having done all we could at that stage, we could only wait and see if and when a summons was issued. The allegations could be against the company for poor maintenance (although all they could find was a faulty ABS light) and against the driver for careless or dangerous driving.

When a case is triable only in the magistrates’ court, the summons must be issued within 6 months. We waited, wondering if the prosecution were going to miss the deadline. I went abroad on holiday, thinking that might have happened. But at the eleventh hour, when I was out for an evening stroll in the Canaries, I received a telephone call. The summons had been issued. However, had the prosecution got it wrong? The summons had been issued not against the company, but against the company secretary. The first court hearing was in Chelmsford in a few weeks’ time.

On my return home, I decided to delay detailed research until I had found out what were the prosecution’s intentions. But I did have a quick look at Stone’s Justices Manual. This is the ‘bible’ of the magistrate’s courts, and can invariably be seen on the desk of the clerk (nowadays called the legal advisor) who sits below the magistrates. In it I found a footnote telling me that a summons cannot be amended to show the name of a different defendant; this I knew already. But it went on to say that nor may the name of a company be substituted for that of its secretary. This had been decided in a case named City of Oxford Tramway Co v Sankey in 1890.

This looked hopeful, so off I went to Chelmsford to see what the prosecutor had to say. She was confident that she could amend the summons, because she argued all one needed to do was delete the secretary’s name and the words ‘company secretary’; you would then be left with the name of the company which was the intended defendant. The magistrates were prepared to accept her application, until I argued that before they did so, I must have the opportunity of researching the law. With no evident enthusiasm, they agreed.

One of the joys of being a lawyer in Oxford was that of having some of the best library resources in the country on the doorstep. A trip to the Bodleian Law Library produced the law report referred to in that footnote.

I read that on 18 June 1889 a tram conductor had accepted more passengers than the local Oxford board permitted. They were required to provide a seat width of 16 inches per passenger (on the basis that passengers (at that time!) sat side by side with their backs to the windows).

Agnes Emma Sankey was a passenger on board and was so upset at the lack of space on her seat that she issued a summons for allowing more passengers than fitted into the permissible space. Presumably she took a tape measure whenever travelling by tram.

She issued the summons against J S Halliwell, the manager of the company. The court allowed the company’s name to be substituted for his. The company was found guilty and fined 10/- plus 8/-costs, plus £5/5/0 counsel’s fees (50p plus 40p plus £5.25 in decimal money – and a reflection of how much the lawyers earned). The company appealed, arguing that the magistrates had no power to substitute the name of the company for that of its officer. The appeal was allowed.

This was just what I wanted to find! Moreover, the case had been approved and applied by the Court of Appeal in the 1980s. So, it was not just dry old case law with no relevance today.

By the time of our next appearance another prosecutor had taken the case over and I had a struggle to convince him that this was a legal decision that had to be followed by the court. But eventually he threw in the towel, and on my fourth and final trip to Chelmsford, the summons against my client company was withdrawn. The only remaining charge against the driver was that of driving a vehicle with a defective ABS light, for which he received an absolute discharge.

My clients were pleased at the outcome, the driver was relieved as the allegations of dangerous driving had been dropped. I was left feeling grateful to the Tramway Company for having provided such invaluable case law. But thinking of an overload tram along Cowley Road, I had to feel sorry for the horse.

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