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A.P. Herbert: A man of letters as well as a great backbencher (Illustration by Michael Daley)

Alan Herbert is best remembered as an exceedingly English man of letters whose anarchic sense of humour enlivened the early days of television. Beginning in 1967, the BBC made three series of the courtroom comedy Misleading Cases, based on his satirical legal reports, originally published in Punch. Collected in book form with the title Uncommon Law, these courtroom dramas remain classics of the generally bone-dry literature of the law. In the TV series Roy Dotrice played Albert Haddock, Herbert’s vexing if not vexatious litigant, while Alistair Sim was the long-suffering judge, Mr Justice Swallow.

Probably the best-known case remains “The Negotiable Cow”. Haddock infuriates an importunate taxman by writing a cheque on the side of a cow: “Pay the Collector of Taxes, who is no gentleman, or Order, the sum of fifty-seven pounds £57/0/0 (and may he rot!).” Haddock stubbornly insists that there is nothing in law to prevent him from paying his income tax by this method. The judge asks: “Was the cow crossed?” “No, your worship,” replies the Public Prosecutor, Sir Joshua Hoot KC. “It was an open cow.” As the Revenue refuses to accept the bovine cheque, Haddock refuses to pay, meanwhile making a mockery of the taxman: “There is no law against ridiculing the income tax.” Despite his mischievous motive, the judge finds in his favour. The case of “Board of Inland Revenue v. Haddock” has been cited in judicial decisions on both sides of the Atlantic; indeed, the Memphis Press-Scimitar published an article that was evidently oblivious of the fictitious nature of the case.

Yet Sir Alan, as he later became, was capable of far more than just lampooning the law. The lawyers had only interpreted the law; the point, for Herbert, was to change it. During the First World War, he endured nightmarish campaigns about which he wrote a searing memoir, The Secret War, with a preface by Winston Churchill. His wartime experience gave him a lifelong suspicion of authority. In 1934 he brought a case against the Kitchen Committee of the House of Commons for selling liquor without a licence. Though he lost the case, Herbert revealed that the limits of parliamentary privilege were so ill-defined that neither House was subject to statute law at all. The failure of the politicians to reform themselves gave Herbert the impetus to stand for Parliament. His election address was characteristically modest: “Agriculture: I know nothing about agriculture.”

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