When the comedian Ken Dodd was cross-examined on charges of tax evasion, he blamed his confusion on the fact that his accountant had died. “Did that really matter?”, the opposing barrister asked him. “It mattered to him”, was Dodd’s reply. He was acquitted on all charges.
I couldn’t help but think of this exchange when reading the coverage of the Wagatha Christie trial. The overriding sentiment has been that this case is a waste of time and money – and an affront to the justice system.
I don’t share that view. It is, of course, easy to sneer at a litigant for rocking up at the High Court with a designer handbag and questions about Peter Andre’s chipolata. For me, though, the trial is a sign of a justice system that is working. While it may not matter all that much to the rest of us, this is a dispute that most definitely matters to the people involved.
The courts exist to decide disagreements between individuals and business that cannot be resolved privately. It’s always preferable to avoid a trial – and litigants should be encouraged to settle their disputes if possible. But this is a genuine contest: accusing someone of leaking stories about a friend is a serious charge. If Rebekah Vardy is really innocent, it is perfectly understandable that she wants to clear her name. If not, then Coleen Rooney will be justified in standing firm.
In some cases, the courts will decide matters of great importance. Should life support be removed from an ill child? Should a person lose his citizenship? The fact that such cases of importance exist does not detract from the need for our justice system to decide disputes that are somewhat more prosaic. The rule of law involves access to justice and the right to have your disagreement resolved in a fair and impartial manner, by competent judges.
If the courts do not exist for this purpose, then how else are we to resolve questions that matter to the individuals involved? The answer cannot be a Twitter slanging match or a showdown on Loose Women.
One of the great things about our system is that judges can and do decide the seemingly mundane with all of the same care and forensic expertise as if they were determining the finer points of human rights law. There are all sorts of imperatives that lie behind the choice to bring a court case. Yes, money will often be a driving factor. In other instances, people may be driven by a desire to vindicate the truth of what they say; thereby helping to retain their honour amongst their community. None of these motivations necessarily has a wider societal value; but all these litigants rely on the court to provide a fair means of dispute resolution.
For some people, a £3,000 debt will be of huge importance. Another case may concern £3 billion – and in that instance you would be derided for spending more than a moment arguing about £3,000. Even a dispute about billions of pounds might appear societally unimportant compared to issues such as human rights. But that is the beauty of the system: if something matters to you, then you have a right to litigate it.
And the Court system is not as po-faced as people think. Every day of the week, witnesses will be accused of lying; regrettably, people will be reduced to tears. Litigants will claim things are true when they are not. There's little chance that Mrs Justice Steyn will have been affronted by confirmation of what "FFS" stands for. This is the reality of litigation: it includes swearing, sometimes appalling behaviour and all the other foibles of the human condition, because it reflects humanity. This case is not so different to any other.
This is, of course, very different to saying that it was a good idea for both sides to dispute the claim. If, say, Vardy were responsible for the leaks, this will have proved to be a massive folly – and vice-versa.
But that does not undermine the need to determine the case. Like everyone else, I have spent the week devouring the details of the trial. Not because it is wrong for it to be litigated, but because, for me, it is a wonderful example of our justice system functioning just as it should.