In the end, it all came down to that sacred concept: A Matter of Principle.
So said seventy-three-year-old Ms Timmins, and with considerable passion, after she and her husband had lost a court case that was reported in the newspapers today, the details of which I shall come to shortly. “We have used up all our life savings,” said Ms Timmins, “and had to draw down from (my husband’s) pension pot, but it was a matter of principle.”
Her opinion was echoed by the other litigant, eighty-five-year-old Mr Soden: “I knew I was in the right – that is why I wouldn’t give up.” So for him, too, a Matter of Principle.
And that is what is striking about the case. Not the relief of the litigants that eleven long years of legal wrangling had ended, or that they had paid the final instalment in legal fees, which for the Timmins came to a sizeable £45,000 – plus £25,000 awarded by the court to help defray their opponent’s costs – and for Mr Soden a hefty £75,000. Nor did the Timmins or Mr Soden seem to care a jot or tittle that the case had consumed the last quarter of their adult lives and brought them close to financial ruin, or at least considerably closer to it than they had been when they started.
No, what gave them comfort, both winner and losers, was that they had emerged from the struggle with their honour intact. They had stood firm on a Matter of Principle.
And the casus belli of this long-running dispute?
If you had to guess, you might plump for freedom to practise a particular form of religion. You would be wrong.
Or you might pick something like the inalienable right to live in peace, free of the fear of violence. Wrong again.
Alright, then, something mundane, like the right to build a house on a piece of land hitherto reserved for the preservation of the great crested newt. Well, you would be wrong yet again.
The case over which the Timmins and Mr Soden devoted eleven years of their lives – longer, it occurs to me now, than the duration of both World Wars combined – was about … a parking space.
A parking space thirteen feet wide.
Actually, not even about the thirteen feet but a 30-inch strip of tarmac adjoining it – that being the section of the parking area that falls directly outside Mr Soden’s garden gate.
It seems that the Timmins were in the habit of parking their car carelessly – that is, they often strayed over the line that defined their thirteen feet into the 30-inch strip in front of Mr Soden’s gate. This caused much annoyance to Mr Soden. Actually, not to Mr Soden personally, because he lived several miles away, but to the tenants to whom he had rented the house next door to the Timmins. The tenants actually sent the Timmins a friendly asking them to refrain from parking outside Mr Soden’s gate, fearful that the car might be scratched when they had to squeeze by it with their bicycles.
A reasonable request, one might think, but one which fell upon deaf ears. Or, if you prefer a biblical version, upon stony ground – and it is a piece of ground – 30 inches of it – we are talking about here.
Mr Soden decided to act on behalf of his tenants. Evidently a man of old-fashioned virtues, like the valiant knights of yesteryear, he rode to the rescue. Or rather, his lawyers did. But still the Timmins held firm. They would park where it suited them, whether that fell in front of Mr Soden’s gate or not. Or rather, their lawyers held firm. It is a Matter of Principle, they probably instructed their clients, or were happy to agree with them on the point. Mr Soden’s lawyers presumably told him the same thing.
By now you must be thinking, as I thought when I read about the case, that such a small matter as this should not have caused so much anguish, or cost so much money, or consumed such a considerable length of time. Could the litigants not have hashed out the dispute in the traditional English manner, once the envy of the civilized world, with a quiet chat across the garden fence, or perhaps even over a cup of tea in the kitchen?
Yes, they could have done either of those things, but they did neither. And they did neither because the matter at hand involved – you guessed it – a Matter of Principle involved.
Mr and Ms Timmins were not laughing after the verdict came down from a body called the Land Registry Tribunal – which probably spent months researching the legal issues – nor was Mr Soden, even though he won the case. I imagine they were either too exhausted, or too busy trying to remember which specific Matter of Principle it was that they had been defending.
But I dare say the lawyers were laughing their heads off – all the way to the bank.