February 19, 2012

When cricket was called a tort

Fabian Muir
A judgement on behalf of a local club ground 35 years ago stands village cricket in England in good stead today

Many who have had any kind of experience with the law would know how boring it can be. Many who do not understand the game of cricket would maintain that it, too, is boring. Thus, for many, there could be few constellations more tedious than those where cricket collides with the law. How wrong they are.

Imagine the following situation: a village cricket field upon which the game has been played for half a century or more. Adjacent to the ground is some vacant land which is eventually sold off, developed and purchased by a man and his wife.

For reasons known only to this couple, they are not fans of cricket. Yet now, whenever local matches are played, they are forced to endure the tock - and sometimes even the thwack - of leather upon willow. Peaceful Sunday afternoons are pierced by batsmen's calls of "wait" or fielders' cries of "catch it". To the homeowners' minds, this racket is insufferable; one man's music is another's cacophony.

More serious is the matter of sixes. The village butcher, a budding Botham, has the eye and the brawn to clear the pickets, and balls occasionally land in the couple's garden. Some even strike their abode, chipping the brickwork or breaking a tile. Consequently, the couple dares not venture outdoors for fear of being hit on the head by purring missiles.

Even when cowering in their home, they are disturbed by fieldsmen, who come and ring the doorbell, requesting that the ball be returned. Before long the couple feels compelled to vacate the premises entirely whenever a match is underway, which they deem an intolerable nuisance. What to do?

This is precisely the question that arose in Miller v Jackson, a British case heard in 1977. There, the Millers sought not only compensation from the local cricket club for damage to their house, but also an injunction prohibiting any future play on the ground. The scene of the crime - or strictly speaking, a so-called "tort" - was the village of Lintz, in County Durham.

The Lintz Cricket Club made every effort to accommodate the Millers by building a high fence at considerable expense (£700, no small sum at that time), offering to install protective netting over the property on match days, and admonishing players to hit fours rather than sixes. The Millers were not satisfied, however, and were determined to stop the cricket altogether.

One might wonder why anyone who dislikes cricket would buy a ringside house in the first place. The Millers claimed that they had not paid any "particular attention" to the nature of the open space at the bottom of the garden when initially inspecting the property. This was accepted by the judge at first instance, who actually granted the orders sought and effectively put an end to cricket in the village after 70 years at the ground. Not surprisingly, the Lintz Cricket Club appealed.

Cricket grounds in the UK and in cricket history can consider themselves fortunate that the appeal came before Lord Denning, one of the most venerable, courageous and eloquent judges of his time. The epic opening paragraph of his judgment is worth revisiting as one of the more whimsical passages in the annals of the game:

Lord Denning calculated that of the 29,022 balls bowled at the ground between 1975 and 1976, just 15 had cleared the fence specially erected by the club

"In summertime village cricket is the delight of everyone. Nearly every village has its own cricket field where the young men play and the old men watch. In the village of Lintz in County Durham they have their own ground, where they have played these last 70 years. They tend it well. The wicket area is well rolled and mown. The outfield is kept short. It has a good club house for the players and seats for the onlookers. The village team play there on Saturdays and Sundays. They belong to a league, competing with the neighbouring villages. On other evenings after work they practise while the light lasts. Yet now after these 70 years a judge of the High Court has ordered that they must not play there any more. He has issued an injunction to stop them. He has done it at the instance of a newcomer who is no lover of cricket. This newcomer has built, or has had built for him, a house on the edge of the cricket ground which four years ago was a field where cattle grazed. The animals did not mind the cricket. But now this adjoining field has been turned into a housing estate. The newcomer bought one of the houses on the edge of the cricket ground. No doubt the open space was a selling point. Now he complains that when a batsman hits a six the ball has been known to land in his garden or on or near his house. His wife has got so upset about it that they always go out at week-ends. They do not go into the garden when cricket is being played. They say that this is intolerable. So they asked the judge to stop the cricket being played. And the judge, much against his will, has felt that he must order the cricket to be stopped: with the consequence, I suppose, that the Lintz Cricket Club will disappear. The cricket ground will be turned to some other use. I expect for more houses or a factory. The young men will turn to other things instead of cricket. The whole village will be much the poorer. And all this because of a newcomer who has just bought a house there next to the cricket ground."

Lord Denning understood cricket, both the game and its broader social significance. He also had talent as a statistician, calculating that of the 29,022 balls bowled at the ground between 1975 and 1976, just 15 had cleared the fence specially erected by the club. In his view, this did not constitute the level of nuisance asserted by the Millers.

The injunction was not granted and cricket was allowed to continue to prosper in Lintz. Just as importantly, a firm lid was placed on the potential can of worms that could have been opened for other grounds adjoining irritable new neighbours. Relations between the club and the Millers did not improve after the ruling, and the couple moved out approximately six months afterwards.

Thirty-five years later, it is tempting to view the incident with mirth. However, a starker light is cast on the dispute by Bob Jackson, the Jackson from Miller v Jackson, who was chairman of Lintz Cricket Club at the time and is today its president.

When asked about his response to Lord Denning's judgment, he says he was emotional, feeling gratitude to him and Lord Justice Cumming-Bruce, who had taken a similar view. However, Jackson also felt "sadness, as the club secretary, John Cromarty, was unable to attend the Court due to a heart attack, brought on by the stress of possibly losing his beloved ground. He died within weeks. He had been involved for over 50 years." This is a tragic detail ignored in legal texts.

It is therefore a shame that, according to Jackson, today's young players "have no concept of the importance of the Denning ruling", even though it remains a popular discussion point in Lintz to this day. Miller v Jackson, a case that appears so unnecessary when viewed from the outside, was in fact very necessary to protect clubs from similar disputes in the future.

Courtesy of Lord Denning - who ultimately scored a century of his own by living to be 100 - Lintz Cricket Club and others remain free to play the game they love.

Alas there is no Denning dispensing justice in Germany, where local authorities secretly dug up the Berlin Cricket Club's pitch and practice wickets on the same day as the 2011 World Cup final. No warning had been given and it is difficult to imagine that the remarkable timing of this cloak-and-dagger operation was entirely coincidental.

The pitch, first laid by British servicemen, had been in use without injury for 60 years, but Berlin administrators suddenly decided that there was an inordinate risk to passers-by and parked cars. The proposed solution? To relocate to a nearby polo field with matting thrown across the grass.

While a short term compromise was reached, no one cares much for Miller v Jackson in Germany. The Berlin CC will start the 2012 season at the new ground, with batsmen set to grapple with chukkers of a very different kind.

More on cricket in the German capital to follow once the ice on the wicket has melted.

Fabian Muir is an Australian writer now based in Berlin

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • John on February 27, 2012, 6:33 GMT

    As both a lawyer and cricketer myself (and incidentally one who shares Fabian's surname) such cases have always interested me. I qualified in 1972, before this case, but I remember our tort course in law school included the case of Bolton v. Stone (1951) in which it was held that injury to a man struck by a cricket ball as he was passing by outside a ground did not constitute a tort. The club had taken reasonable precautions and someone walking past had a duty to be aware of the potential danger. I always thought a cricketer must have rendered that verdict! Lord Denning was an amazing man; my admission certificate is signed by him and is one of my proudest possessions. I was in a small group to whom he spoke a few years later (he was 78 at the time) and his clarity of thought was incredible. As he put it, "I never let the law stop me from doing what was right." Lintz was lucky to benefit from his wisdom.

  • Dummy4 on February 26, 2012, 13:10 GMT

    Denning MR's judgment has possibly the finest opening paragraph of any ever written. This and Donoghue v Stephenson are proper "desert island" cases.

    Thanks for this, great stuff.

  • Matthew on February 26, 2012, 1:23 GMT

    What miserable so and so's the millers were. I'd love acricket ground behind my back garden.

  • Graham on February 25, 2012, 23:49 GMT

    Always interesting to read the many untold , or unknown stories of cricket in general. This is one of those incidents that would not be widely known . I appreciate the fact that it has been published here . Life would be totally boring without a game of cricket , even though one has to admit to , like a lot of other things , the cricket game itself can on occasions be termed boring . But one gets over it , and looks forward to the next game . Viva la Cricket , Long live the Cricket . Cricket La Stupenda (whatever that means) , Cricket under any other name would still be cricket .

  • James on February 25, 2012, 19:49 GMT

    Fabian, lovely article. I play at a cricket ground at Wray Crescent in Finsbury Park London that is desparately fighting for survival of adult cricket. It is the only one in the borough. Please can all cricket lovers in Islington lobby their councillors for the maintenance of the only public ground in the borough (the other ground being private hire at over a £1k a game). Thank God for Denning but our local council clearly thinks they can distinguish our case on the facts.

  • Hanif on February 25, 2012, 13:41 GMT

    I cant understand why the case went to such lengths. When the couple bought the land (for the house), how could they have not noticed that there was a cricket field? The first judge must have been asleep. If I buy land to build a house next to an existing nightclub, how can I then complain about the noise? If I buy a house next to a farm, I cant exactly complan about the cows and the smell, can I. Shame to the Millers who, for selfish motives, set out to destroy 70 years of history and enjoyment of coming generations. The loss of this case could have had disasterous consequences for thousands of cricket clubs throughout UK. I am glad that Lord Denning applied commonsense and let the great game of Cricket live.

  • Douglas on February 25, 2012, 13:40 GMT

    I am not a student of the law, but have always been a lover and follower of cricket. I believe there may be some merit in the comment of "segga-express" that there may be legal debate on the decision of Lord Denning BUT I would cast great doubt on the assertion by the purchasers of the property that they had not paid "particular attention" to the open space next to their property, that is until it became what they describe as "a nuisance". Surely they must have visited their property from time to time, most likely on weekends and should/would have seen cricket in progress. It would take little imagination on their part to imagine that from time to time a ball would come into their garden and they would hear the cries of the players. They evidently bought the property in full knowledge of these facts but decided, in their selfishness, to try to change a village practice to suit their wishes. Well done M'Lud. May your ruling stand the test should it be ever challenged.

  • Dummy4 on February 25, 2012, 12:39 GMT

    Denning did sit in the House of Lords.

  • James on February 25, 2012, 11:12 GMT

    Interesting article - thanks.

  • Adrian on February 25, 2012, 11:00 GMT

    Until reading this I had never heard of this case or Lintz CC. At the club where I play cricket has been played for over 130 years. At one end we have a 40ft fence seperating us from a row of houses, however the ball sometimes still lands in the gardens despite this. The cricket field has been there longer than the houses. A few years ago during a match one of the neighbours came round and told us we had to stop playing because it was upsetting her and her young child. Fortunately our club chairman was on hand to turn on the charm and managed to appease her by offering to pay for a broken roof tile on her property. It struck me at the time how selfish someone would have to be in order to even try to stop cricket being played. Fortunately at our club it never went as far as it did at Lintz. I think we can all be grateful of Lord Denning's ruling in this case. It would make no sense to end years of playing and enjoyment for so many people for the interests of just 2 people.

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