Between November 1932 and May 1933, victims of the Great Depression could cheer themselves up a bit by listening to the brilliant wit of Groucho and Chico Marx on the radio posing as attorneys at a small law firm in the States. The firm was called Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel. Groucho was the eponymous Flywheel and there was in fact no Shyster in the firm, Chico playing Flywheel's assistant, Ravelli, to exploit his stage Italian accent. In fact the show was originally entitled Beagle, Shyster and Beagle but following the airing of the first episode a New York attorney called Beagle filed a lawsuit for $300,000 alleging his name had been slandered and that its use was damaging his business and health. He also claimed that people were calling his firm and asking "Is this Mr Beagle?"When he answered "Yes", the caller would say, "How's your partner, Shyster?"
The claim by Mr Beagle raised a couple of legal issues. Firstly, slander. Slander is a sub-division of defamation, which broadly is a publication which reduces someone's reputation amongst right-thinking members of society, libel being the written and slander the oral publication (actually as this was a recording I think it was actually technically libel). There is no need to prove intention to besmirch. I doubt Groucho and Chico or the programme makers had ever heard of Mr Beagle. Here however the defamation alleged was somewhat indirect i.e. that the programme had the effect of associating Mr Beagle with a shyster, a corrupt lawyer. I have no idea of Mr Beagle's pre-existing reputation as a lawyer but we must assume it was good or he would not have risked the lawsuit at all (plenty of celebrities have fallen for that trap: Johnathan Aitken, Oscar Wilde to name two). In addition, Mr Beagle might have been claiming any an action known as 'passing off', namely that his law firm had been confused with the one in the programme, to the detriment of his, but if so it is difficult to see how this would work since the radio one was clearly fictional. It is not a defence to say that the defaming statement was a joke but nonetheless it would have been interesting to see the outcome if this had ever come to trial - would right-thinking people (even those who were his clients) really think that Mr Beagle's firm was being portrayed in some way on the programme so as to link in their minds that he had a partner who was a shyster? It seems an action too far, but the producers and sponsors (who were in fact an oil company, Standard Oil) panicked and so Beagle, Shyster and Beagle became Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel, a much better name anyway. The next episode explained that Groucho's character had divorced and resorted to his 'maiden name' (perhaps one of Groucho's little jokes in itself).
Groucho was no stranger to intellectual property law. On another occasion he did not back down. When Night at Cassablanca was being completed for release in 1946, Warner Brothers' legal department threatened legal action, presumably this time for breach of copyright, saying that the film's name was too similar to their film Cassablanca released four years earlier, starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. The wittiest of men sent a typically brilliant Groucho style letter in response: 'You claim that you own Cassablanca and that no one else can use it without your permission. What about ' Warner Brothers'? Do you own that too? Professionally we were brothers long before you were'. Warner Brothers nonetheless persisted and insisted on seeing the storyline. Groucho responded by sending them a plot in which he would be playing 'Bordello, the sweetheart of Humphrey Bogart'. At this point, Warner Brothers gave up.
A blog entry on the Marx Brothers and the law gives me the excuse to mention what I think is one of the cleverest comedy exchanges ever written which is when Groucho and Chico argue about contract terms in Night at the Opera. This contains the immortal punchlines:
Groucho: That's in every contract. that's a sanity clause
Chico: Ah you can't afoola me. There ain't no Santa Claus.
Sunday, 19 July 2009
Tuesday, 14 July 2009
On a more light-hearted note, I thought I would mention a few laws that have been on the statute book for a while which have perhaps outlived their original purpose. One such is the Servants Character Act 1792 , still alive and kicking. The preamble to the Act says it all: Whereas many false and counterfeit characters of servants have either been given personally or in writing by evil disposed persons pretending to be the master....of such servants. And whereas the evil herein complained of is not only difficult to be guarded against, but is also of great magnitude and continually increasing, and no sufficient remedy has hitherto been applied..'. The Act made it an offence to impersonate a master presumably because there were a lot of bad servants out there. Today we are more likely to be exercised by the bad quality of the master/employer than that of the servant/employee but nonetheless this quaint anachronistic law remains. Another one in a similar vein is the Disorderly Houses Act 1751 which addresses 'many subtle and crafty contrivances of persons keeping bawdy-houses' , in particular the mischief of not being able to tell who the true owner or keeper of such establishments might be so as to hold them responsible. This Act therefore provides that anyone who seems to have some control is liable (thus presumably encouraging further disorderly behaviour as no one would want to be seen to be in control). Coming more up to date there is section 85 of the Public Health Act 1936 which deals with 'cleansing of verminous persons and their clothing' and provides that a local authority may remove a 'verminous person' to a 'cleansing station' and detain him and effectively strip him of his clothing without his consent if a court deems it necessary that 'he or his clothing should be cleansed'. Finally in this category is the Hypnotism Act 1952 which provides for licence conditions for the conduct of public hypnotism, brought into play long before TV hypnotists became the rage. Perhaps this statute has more relevance today than the others and may not be such a silly statute although it certainly doesn't prevent us seeing a lot of silly (hypnotised) behaviour on the telly.
Thursday, 9 July 2009
Wednesday, 8 July 2009
In my practice as a litigation solicitor over the last 25 years many people have come into my office with a bundle of papers representing a complaint about some service they have received and told me how frustrated they have become with the process of complaining.. From their experiences I have distilled twelve basic tips to help you on your way.
· Find out if there is a complaints procedure and if so get a copy of it. Many industries are now obliged to have a procedure and many others chose to have one. If there is no procedure work out to whom you should be sending your complaint which, if in doubt, needs to be someone who has authority to deal with it
· Write a summary of the background to your relevant dealings with the company (chronologies are often useful, but only key dates are necessary) and of the reason for complaining. Except in the most complex of complaints this should be no more than a side of A4. This will be your letter of complaint and it should be brief and to the point
· Be firm in your language but don’t get emotional, ‘personal’ or abusive. We can’t help it when we’re very cross but believe me it won’t help you to let this spill over and may make it less likely that you will be taken seriously. Calling someone a ‘bare-faced liar’ is unlikely to be necessary for you to succeed in your complaint and you probably can’t prove it anyway. Rather say they have made a mistake where possible. . We all make mistakes occasionally and establishing a mistake is often all you need to succeed in your complaint
· By the same token avoid irrelevancies e.g. it may be that one person in the company did spell your name wrong ‘on top of it all’ but is that relevant to your core allegation? All including it does is slow down the resolution process as the company tries to investigate and answer each item, relevant or not to the desired outcome
· Set out in the letter what you would regard as a successful outcome. Set out your loses although on the subject of compensation it may be best at this stage to keep the figure open to allow negotiation ( it is possible in some cases to get compensation for distress and inconvenience but usually this is a ‘negotiating issue’)
· It’s useful to remember and to articulate that you and the company have a common cause: to improve the company’s service for the future
· Let someone else check your complaint letter before it’s dispatched. Make sure the letter is dated, marked 'complaint' and that copies of all relevant documents are attached. Keep a copy of your letter and retain all original relevant documents
· Pace any chasing up. Companies are busy and you are not their only problem. Only the biggest ones have complaints departments. Make sure that they stick to their own procedure, but otherwise as a rule of thumb, unless your case is urgent, or alternatively very complex and time-consuming, it would be reasonable to expect an acknowledgement in 7 days and a substantive response in 28 days
· Take seriously any response, even if it rejects your complaint as long as reasons are given. After all, you may have been mistaken yourself.
· If you make progress, be prepared to negotiate. It is rare for one party to be wholly in the right, still rarer for them to be able to prove it. It is usually sensible to accept a deal as long as its reasonable, even if not ideal
· Decide whether to take legal advice. For very small value complaints this may not be an economic option. However many legal firms offer a fixed fee interview which may be a useful check on whether you are going about things the right way. A good lawyer will tell you whether he thinks you could do better or worse in court which may well determine whether you should settle. He/she may bring you down to earth or find a way to make your complaint more effective with some tweaking or see a way to get higher compensation. He/she should spot if there are any unenforceable exclusion clauses. In some cases legal costs can also be claimed, depending on the type of complaint and its value.
· Finally, don’t let the complaint dominate your life, even for a second. There’s more to life than complaining!