Thursday, 15 July 2010

Would you pay for this?

Make no mistake about what follows. It is not my own work. Well, I suppose in a sort of way it is. I paid to get it. It is behind a paywall of the Times. I disagree with this new idea and publish this in this manner to see what happens.

The historian Michael Howard noted that “the important thing when you are going to do something brave is to have someone on hand to witness it”.

At a recent bullfight, the Mexican matador Christian Hernandez stood before thousands of witnesses but when a half-tonne bull was released into the ring, Hernandez ran away and was eventually arrested for cowardice and “breach of contract”.

In Mexico City, bullfighting - the corrida de toros - makes heavy demands of the bullfighter. In Spain it’s illegal for anyone under 16 to become a bullfighter but in Mexico children as young as ten enter the ring without any worry that a squad of health and safety inspectors will screech up in siren-blaring cars.

Hernandez initially confronted the large bull at the Plaza Mexico but then had second thoughts. The nervous matador dropped his cape, fled to the edge of the ring and dived over the wall.
If he thought the bull was frightening he hadn’t bargained for the reaction of his managers and the bullfight organisers – they were livid and after a short while with them he re-entered the ring.

He fled again, though, just as swiftly. Opting for barbed reviews in preference to impalement on horns he jumped back over the wall into the crowd. Explaining his retreat, the 22-year-old novice bullfighter said: “I did not have the balls.”

Oddly, though, while that is now true for some of his savagely injured matador confreres, the anatomical disclaimer isn’t true for Hernandez as he leaves the corrida in tact.

In most jurisdictions, neither cowardice nor breach of contract is a criminal offence but in Mexico the police, under guidance from the bullfight organisers, gouged Hernandez with both those legal horns. He has since paid a fine and further proceedings have been dropped. This isn’t the first bizarre bovine case to arise in contract law. One case began as fiction but ended up as fact. In 1967, BBC television broadcast a drama about the fictional case Board of Inland Revenue v Haddock – “the case of the negotiable cow”. Angry at the way he’d been treated by the tax authorities, Albert Haddock, a character invented by A. P.Herbert in 1924, tried to settle his tax by writing a £57 cheque on the side of a cow and leading the animal to the office of the Collector of Taxes.

A few weeks after the programme, an American paper, the Memphis Press-Scimitar, published an article headed “A Check Can Be Written on a Cow”. Without reference to the BBC or A. P. Herbert’s story, the article recited the case as a real precedent from “19th century English law”. The case was later referred to in American legal writing.

In court, Albert Haddock argued that cheques written on napkins and wine labels had been successfully drawn on banks. So, he said, his instructions to his bank stencilled in red on the side of a white cow were legal. He won his case having argued there were in his account “sufficient funds to meet the cow” and that if the tax collectors didn’t like it they could “do the other thing”.

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