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Day 5 - Weird Cases - The Wrong Pants Succeed?
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Day 5 - Weird Cases - The Wrong Pants Succeed?

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  • 1. WEIRD CASESIn 1689, the Bill of Rights declared that “cruel and unusual punishments” should not beinflicted on citizens. That, though, was at a time when possible punishments included beingboiled to death and unspeakable mutilation with iron pliers. Standards change over time.Today, an Austrian count who spent seven days in an English prison is alleging that hishuman rights were violated when he was given an uncomfortable pair of underpants.Alfons Mensdorff-Pouilly lives in a palace in Austria and owns other properties including acastle in Scotland and a home in Sloane Square, London. This is a man who is notaccustomed to compromising on the quality or comfort of his underpants.His period of imprisonment came about as part of a Serious Fraud Office (SFO) investigationinto a BAE Systems arms deal. The SFO investigation concerned allegations that Mensdorff-Pouilly, a BAE agent, made illegal payments of about £10.53m to officials in order to wincontracts for BAE to deliver fighter jets to Hungary, Austria, and the Czech Republic. He wascharged with corruption offences for bribing state officials. Eventually, BAE Systems admittedto criminal charges of corruption and agreed to pay £287m to the authorities.After he was released, Mensdorff-Pouilly said that “In the UK human rights are not exactlyrespected like they are in Austria.” In recounting the alleged human rights travesty, the countsaid “I wasn’t given underwear that was my size, despite asking for it several times”.Does the count have a valid complaint? Could a human rights case of ‘The Wrong Pants’succeed? On December 10, 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) adoptedthe Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 5 says "No one shall be subjected totorture or to cruel inhuman or de-grading treatment or punishment." On the minds of thedrafters, however, was the suffering of people in the Holocaust and the Second World War. Itseems unlikely that the UN would have been diverted for hours of debate if a delegate thenhad asked “Yes, but legally does article 5 guarantee a suspect’s right to tailor-measuredunderpants?”A case of uncomfortable underpants, though, did once change the law. In 1931, RichardGrant, a doctor in Adelaide, got an acute form of dermatitis from a pair of Golden Fleecewoollen underpants. These were, in fact, a shockingly bad pair of pants. He was incapacitatedfor 17 weeks and had to go to New Zealand to recuperate. The dermatitis was caused by achemical irritant – free sulphites - that manufacturers had failed to remove during production.Dr Grant’s sweat combined with the free sulphites to form, successively, sulphur dioxide, thensulphurous acid and then sulphuric acid. He was allowed to win compensation for the latentdefect in the pants. He settled, though, for that compensation and didn’t take his case to theLeague of Nations as an alleged affront to human dignity.Gary Slapper is Professor of Law at The Open University. His new book Weird Cases ispublished by Wildy, Simmonds & Hill.These articles were published by The Times Online as part of the weekly column written byGary Slapper