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The Allegories of the Nile

Occasionally this blog contains a misspelling. I have, for instance, misspelled “Brian Cowen” as “Brian Cowan”.

Nobody was misled; indeed, I was corrected by a reader.

There is, however, a human type that is radically intolerant of the mistakes of others. Alternatively, that type is inflexible in thought. Alternatively, these are human traits which some people have and others do not; and some people have both traits.

The result is that when a solicitor composes a letter for his/her client and writes;

Pursuant to Clause 7(13) of the Lease we as Tenant hereby give notice to you to determine the lease on 12 January 1995. . .”

the solicitor is fixed (not any more) with the serious consequences of failing to exercise a break clause for the Tenant.

If the solicitor had written:

Pursuant to Clause 7(13) of the Lease we as Tenant hereby give notice to you to determine the lease on the third anniversary thereof. . .”

there would have been no error. The third anniversary of the lease in question fell on 13th January 1995 and not 12th January 1995.

This was the issue in Mannai Investment Co Ltd v. Eagle Star Assurance [1997] UKHL

Lord Hoffman referred to Mrs. Malaprop’s line (in the play “The Rivals) “She is as obstinate as an allegory on the banks of the Nile”, to explain why the law should change on the interpretation of such notices. Most people understand what Mrs. Malaprop says; indeed they also understand that her mistake is a joke and is intended by the playwright (Richard Brinsley Sheridan). (For the sake of the joke, the playwright conflated crocodiles with alligators, there being no alligators on the banks of the Nile).

The judge went on to say;

Mrs. Malaprop’s problem was an imperfect understanding of the conventional meanings of English words. But the reason for the mistake does not really matter. We use the same process of adjustment when people have made mistakes about names or descriptions or days or times because they have forgotten or become mixed up. If one meets an acquaintance and he says “And how is Mary?” it may be obvious that he is referring to one’s wife, even if she is in fact called Jane. One may even, to avoid embarrassment, answer “Very well, thank you” without drawing attention to his mistake. The message has been unambiguously received and understood.”

Lord Hoffman, with the majority, allowed the Tenant’s appeal.

The mistake of the Tenant or its agent was to fail to calculate when the third anniversary fell. Indeed, as a practical matter the mistake was to calculate it at all, as can be seen from the suggested form of the notice shown above.

As Lord Hoffman pointed out, nobody was misled.