Leading court cases to sing about

06 December 2011

Some of the more bizarre, interesting yet groundbreaking court cases in British and American history will feature in a unique songbook being put together by a University of Canterbury law academic.

Some of the more bizarre, interesting yet groundbreaking court cases in British and American history will feature in a unique songbook being put together by a University of Canterbury law academic.

While claiming to have not much of a musical background apart from the occasional “tootle” on a clarinet, Professor Stephen Todd (Law) has written the lyrics for 26 songs, set to music by Gilbert and Sullivan, about some of the more curious court cases that have made legal history in the United Kingdom and the United States.

He is putting them together as an illustrated songbook, Leading Cases in Song, with an accompanying CD. Former UC staff member John Pattinson worked on the musical arrangement, putting the words and music together on computer files.

“My criteria for choosing a case is that it must be one or more of interesting, amusing, bizarre, important, that it must be suitable for light verse and thus that it must not be nasty, boring or tragic,” he said.

“I set the various songs to music from the Gilbert and Sullivan operas. Sir Arthur Sullivan’s music certainly is cheerful and appealing. I know the operas quite well, so I chose those songs which seemed to me to fit the kind of song I was writing.”

Among the songs included in the book are those Professor Todd put together for three short operas that have all been performed at UC as part of the School of Law’s annual Law Revue. Professor Todd said that it was during the 1991 revue that “germ of the idea” for a songbook first arose.

“Staff contributions were invited and I suggested staff sing a song or songs about interesting cases that the students would know about from their lectures. Our first attempt was pretty amateurish, but we have got much better over the years.”

As well as acting out cases he took off singers and groups – such as Metallica, Prodigy, and Abba – and rewrote their songs with a legal theme. He recently branched out into opera with his first, featuring six songs, being about the 1930s decision of the House of Lords in Donoghue v Stevenson. Songs from this opera will be included in his book.

“This is a very famous case and every lawyer knows about it. Mrs Donoghue went with a friend to Wellmeadow Café in Paisley in Glasgow. Her friend bought her a glass of ginger beer, in an opaque bottle. Mrs D eagerly drank some of the ginger beer, but when she poured some more into her glass she found the remains of a decomposed snail,” said Professor Todd.

“Mrs D alleged she was made ill from drinking the ginger beer containing the bits of snail. She couldn’t sue the café owner for breach of contract as she didn’t buy the beer, so she sued Stevenson, the manufacturer, in the tort of negligence and succeeded. So, Donoghue v Stevenson is the foundational case on the responsibilities of manufacturers towards the ultimate consumers of their products.”

This opera debuted in the 2009 Law Revue and was published in the New Law Journal. After it was published Professor Todd said his daughter, Lucy, suggested he put together a songbook. It may also be performed again at a major conference in Scotland celebrating the 80th anniversary of the decision.

Professor Todd’s most recent opera was about the trials of model Naomi Campbell, who successfully sued the Daily Mirror for an invasion of privacy for publishing the true information that she belonged to Narcotics Anonymous after she claimed she did not take drugs; and about Max Mosley who successfully sued the News of the World for invasion of privacy after it published stories about him undergoing disciplinary sessions with prostitutes. This opera was performed in the 2011 Law Revue.

“I have also written about 10 more individual songs, based on various cases decided in England and the US. They did not involve a lot of research as I knew about most of them beforehand. However, I did come across one or two obscure cases that I like. In one example, a lady took her dog to the defendant animal hospital where it unfortunately died. The owner arranged for an elaborate funeral, but during it she discovered on opening the casket that it contained the remains of a dead cat. The hospital was held liable for her shock and upset.”

Professor Todd said once he had sourced illustrations and produced the CD he planned to approach a publisher with his work.

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