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13. Wilde V John Sholto Douglas, Marquis of Queensbury April 5, 6, 1895

In 1895, The Times reported on three trials of Oscar Wilde. It was the celebrity scandal of the century. The Marquis of Queensbury, who thought his son was being corrupted by Wilde, sent a card to Wilde’s club saying: “To Oscar Wilde posing Somdomite” [sic]. Wilde sued for criminal libel. Queensbury pleaded justification, accusing Wilde of soliciting more than 12 boys. The case had many marvellous episodes, particularly when Wilde was cross-examined:

COUNSEL: Have you ever adored a young man madly? WILDE: I have never given adoration to anybody except myself.

Wilde lost after a fatal slip in cross-examination in which he seemed to say he hadn’t kissed a boy not because he was a boy but because he was ugly. Soon after, he was arrested for indecency. Wilde was eventually convicted after a second trial – the first jury failed to agree on most of the charges – and sentenced to two years with hard labour. The case included many shocking travesties of justice. For example, it came to light that throughout the proceedings, the young men who were testifying against Wilde were each being paid £5 a week by the police, an enormous sum at the time. Nevertheless, Wilde’s courtroom wit was bountiful. Asked by the seasoned 44-year old prosecutor Charles Gill whether he exalted youth, Wilde said he did and added, to courtroom laughter: “I should enjoy, for instance, the society of a beardless, briefless barrister quite as much as that of the most accomplished QC.” He was asked later whether his habit of giving cigarette cases to working class youths was not strangely expensive. Wilde replied that it was “less extravagant than giving jewelled garters to ladies”.

14. Salomon V Salomon November 17, 1896

Salomon v Salomon was an important case in clarifying the legal definition of a company. Aron Salomon, a boot manufacturer and leather merchant, set up a company in which he held nearly all the shares and was managing director. He loaned the company his own money and received debentures in return. He was therefore entitled to a sum of the company’s assets. After the company later went into liquidation, Salomon sought to be treated as a “secured” creditor and to have his claim settled before those of other creditors. The House of Lords upheld his claim. It ruled that a company is separate from the individuals that compose it.

15. Wilkinson V Downton May 10, 1897

The law against harming people is of immense importance in a civilised society. In defining a civil wrong in a new and clear way, this case was innovative. It created a tort of intentional infliction of mental shock. Thomas Wilkinson was a pub landlord on St Paul’s Road in east London. One day, while he was at the races, a regular named Downton decided to play a practical joke on his wife, Lavinia. Downton “falsely, fraudulently and maliciously” told Lavinia that her husband had had a “smash up” and was lying injured at the Elms Public House in Leytonstone. On hearing this, Lavinia experienced a violent nervous shock. Even after the truth became apparent, she experienced weeks of suffering and incapacity. The court ruled that she was entitled to damages as the defendant had wilfully, calculatedly, caused her distress.

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