Landmark Legal Cases Which Have Shaped UK Law

Landmark Legal Cases Which Have Shaped UK Law

We have listed the top ground-breaking cases that have defined the UK’s legal system, shaping it into what it is today.

Legislation and legal rights are often defined by society. They go hand in hand with social and political attitudes and reveal the principles that make up that jurisdiction’s version of justice and life. When laws change, it often marks the progression (or arguably regression in some instances) of the respective society, leaving it to be very important to recognise the particular landmarks that have built current social civilisation.

Below, we have listed the top ground-breaking cases that have defined the UK’s legal system, shaping it into what it is today.

  1. The Case of Proclamations, 1610

The chief justice, Sir Edward Coke, ruled that King James I could not prohibit new buildings in London without the support of parliament.

In giving his judgment, Chief Justice Coke set out the principle that the King had no power to declare new offences by proclamation: The King has no prerogative but that which the law of the land allows him.[1] In short, King James believed that he had the right to make any laws that he wished, but the court had opposed his view. By the end of the 17th century, the foundation for today’s constitutional monarchy – where the king or queen respects the law-making authority of the elected parliament – become more prominent.

The 1610 case of proclamations was drawn upon by the Supreme Court in 2017, when Gina Miller brought a case against the UK government, claiming that it couldn’t trigger Article 50 – and therefore Brexit – without an act of parliament[2]. This just showcases the impact such landmark cases, like the above, have on today’s society and how they continue to shape law today.

  1. Entick v Carrington, 1765 

Travelling back to the 18th century, this case brought upon the definition of ‘no man is above the law’.

On 11 November 162, the King’s Chief Messenger who was accompanied by three other King’s messengers, broke into the home of writer John Entick after they suspected him of writing a libellous pamphlet against the government, on behalf of the Secretary of State. Over the course of four hours, the King’s men broke open locks and doors and searched all of the rooms before taking away 100 charts and 100 pamphlets, causing £2,000 of damage (£413,906 in 2020).

Entick sued the messengers for trespassing on his land. The judgment established the limits of executive power in English law: the state may act lawfully only in a manner prescribed by statute or common law, i.e., the secretary of state did not have the legal authority to issue a search warrant.

This landmark decision also falls as part of the background to the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and was described by the Supreme Court of the United States as “a ‘great judgment’, ‘one of the landmarks of English liberty’. To this day, thanks to this landmark case, law enforcement agencies can only do what the law allows.

  1. Donaldson v Becket, 1774

This ruling by the House of Lords held that copyright in published works was not perpetual and was instead subject to statutory limits. (Some scholars disagree on the reasoning behind the decision).

This case is often upheld as the birthplace of modern copyright, as prior to 1774, copyright had no real fixed duration; The Statute of Anne (also known as the Copyright Act 1710) did exist at this point stating that those who purchased the right to copy a work from an author were intended to hold those rights for a maximum of 28 years. The statute never took root, however.

The right to print James Thomson’s poems (The Seasons) was sold to a coalition of publishers including Thomas Becket. Two Scottish printers, Alexander and John Donaldson, began publishing an unlicensed edition, and Becket successfully obtained an injunction to stop them. This decision was appealed in Donaldson v Becket, and eventually went to the House of Lords. After consulting with the judges of the King’s Bench, Common Pleas and Exchequer of Pleas, the Lords concluded that copyright was not perpetual and that the term permitted by the Statute of Anne was the maximum length of legal protection for publishers and authors alike. After the case, England became the first country to institute fixed-term copyright, whereby copyright holders could maintain monopoly control over their copyrights for a maximum of 28 years, after which the work would enter the public domain[3].

  1. Worlledge v Manning, 1786

This judgment in English law by the House of Lords is known to be ground-breaking due to it shaping the modern legal understanding of private property rights.

The case arose from a disagreement about gleaning during the 1785 harvest. After the barley crop had been cut and cleared, shoemaker Benjamin Manning had gone onto the land of John Worlledge, to glean and had carried away a quantity of barley. Worlledge disputed this and brought an action for trespass in the Court of Common Pleas. The court decided in Worlledge’s favour in May 1786 and awarded him damages and costs[4].

This was the first time that gleaners’ rights had been challenged and it served as a precedent and possible catalyst for the landmark Steel v Houghton case a year later[5].

  1. Vaughan v Menlove, 1837

This English tort law case first introduced the concept of the reasonable person in law.

A man had sued his neighbour after a fire had burnt down two cottages. The defendant had built a hay rick despite being warned several times over a period of five weeks that the manner in which he built the hay rick was dangerous. The hay ignited and thus spread to the claimant’s land.

At trial, the judge instructed the jury to consider whether the fire had been caused by gross negligence on the part of the defendant and stated the defendant “was [duty] bound to proceed with such reasonable caution as a prudent man would have exercised under such circumstances.[6]” The jury found the defendant negligent.

This case was decided during a transitional period in the history of the common law rule on negligence and liability. In the US and England, there was no settled standard for tort liability until the mid- to late 19th century.

  1. Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Company, 1892

Commonly cited, this judgment is a leading example in the common law of contract, marking how it has shaped UK’s law.

The Carbolic Smoke Ball Co. made a product called the “smoke ball” and claimed it to be a cure for influenza and a number of other diseases and advertised that buyers who found it did not work would be awarded £100. Mrs Carlill sued the manufacturer as they then refused to pay out; the court decided that their statement and 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 the principles that must be present in modern-day contracts today, such as offer and acceptance[7].

  1. Donoghue v Stevenson, 1932

This court decision in Scots delict law and English tort law by the House of Lords, laid the foundation of the modern law of negligence, establishing general principles of the duty of care[8].

Mrs Donoghue drank a bottle of ginger beer that happened to contain a dead snail and when she fell ill, she sued the manufacturer, Mr Stevenson. As she had not bought the drink herself, she had no contract on which to sue. Nonetheless, the case proceeded from the Court of Session to the House of Lords, where it was held that the manufacturer was liable as he owed a duty of care to the customer[9], which was breached because it was reasonable to foresee that a failure to ensure product safety could harm the consumer.

This case ignited the neighbour principle – the idea one must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions that could reasonably be foreseen as likely to injure one’s neighbour, therefore, Donoghue v Stevenson saw the law of negligence being extended to require reasonable care towards those likely to be affected by a person’s or company’s actions.





[4]  Henry Blackstone, Law Library, Volume 9






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