For some reason I was thinking about that as I was leaving the office one night last week. The offices of Mawhinney & Co are adorned with dozens of historical law books containing reports of court cases dating back over a hundred and fifty years.
They are there for decorative purposes, but once in a while I pull one out and rumble through. And let me tell you. To dust off one of those old tomes and read what legal squabbles they were having generations ago is fascinating.
Anyway, that night as I was leaving, out of a sudden burst of curiosity I stopped, closed the door, and thought “I wonder if we’ve got anything here from 1918”.
I started delving and as luck would have it, we have several from 1918.
In the areas of law that we deal with (property, commercial and trusts) there was plenty of drama:
Becker Gray v London Assurance where the House of Lords had to rule on contractual issue regarding an insurance policy. Becker Gray had goods on board a German ship for carriage from Calcutta to Hamburg. They had insured the goods against the usual perils a century ago, including “men-of-war, enemies and restraints of princes”.
Anyway, while the goods were at sea war broke out.
The master, on being informed of this fact, put into a neutral port to avoid the risk of capture, and the voyage was abandoned. Becker Gray notified their insurer and claimed total loss. London Insurance refused the claim.
In the House of Lords the insurer was vindicated on the grounds that there was no evidence that the ship had been chased by a hostile cruiser, and the voyage was frustrated not by any peril insured against, but by the voluntary action of the captain.
The Hakan is another interesting case. Here the Privy Council held that a Swedish ship, captured by the Allies in 1914 while laden with a cargo of fish destined for Germany, should be condemned and its cargo confiscated. The reasoning being that, in the Court’s opinion, the fish were likely to be “applied for warlike purposes” namely feeding otherwise starving German soldiers.
Ertel Bieber v Rio Tinto was a case of trading with the enemy. An English company signed contracts with three German companies to deliver large quantities of sulphur ore from the its mine in Spain. Delivery and payment were to be by instalment over several years.
The contracts contained “force majeure” clauses which stated that if a strike or war arose which prevented them shipping the ore to Germany, the obligation to do so would be suspended.
World War One duly broke out between England and Germany. Not only did the House of Lords consider whether the force majeure clause rendered the contracts void, but it also considered the contracts to be contrary to public policy.
Another commercial case you will like was Hugh Stevenson v Carton-Nagen Industrie. An English company and a German company were partners in a business operating in Manchester under the name of the English company. Both companies had contributed financially.
The outbreak of war effectively put an end to the partnership, but the English company continued operations using the partnership plant (partly owned by the German company). Quite rightly, the House of Lords held that the German company was entitled to a share of profits after the partnership dissolved.
The above cases are all commercial ones. As you can imagine there were just as many property law and/or trust/estate law issues arising because of the war. These included properties acquired by the government under the Defence of the Realm laws, and what level of compensation should be paid in those situations. Properties, owned by now-deceased servicemen, which needed to be transferred but to whom.
Claims on the estate of dead soldiers who never had a proper Will, but who had been making all sorts of promises to the girl back in Blighty.
As I browsed through these cases I couldn’t help but think that, so different as life was back then, fundamentally the law hasn’t really changed. There is still a need for sound legal advice now just as there was then.
At Mawhinney & Co we not only have a fascination with the law, but we can apply our expertise to help you in the real world right now. Things are changing as fast now as anytime in history. Our job is to keep on top of it so you stay on top of it.
Do you really think you can trust google to help you do that?
So if you have a legal question related to property, business or how to protect your assets for loved ones, please contact us on email@example.com or visit our website www.mawhinney.co.nz