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Don't make a Charlie of yourself when it comes to litigation

View profile for Mark Jones
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Dont make a Charlie of yourself when it comes to litigation

Just before Christmas I wrote a blog which was based on Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol. It’s a book which is known the world over. What’s less widely known is that it gave rise to a real life Dickensian tale.

It is one of the great works of English literature (A Christmas Carol that is, not my blog). Dickens must have made a fortune out of it. Well actually, he didn’t. The book proved to be a financial disaster for him and the reason was a lack of judgement when it came to litigation.

In early 1843 Dickens was going through some Hard Times. His previous few novels had not been a great success, his publishers were losing faith in him and he was facing mounting debts. He then came up with the idea for a novel that he thought would transform his fortunes. He wrote A Christmas Carol quickly in the second half of 1843, in time to catch the Christmas market but his publishers, wary of his recent lack of success declined to publish it. Dickens had faith in his book and therefore decided to publish it himself. You could say he had Great Expectations.

He was proved right. A Christmas Carol was an immediate success and the first print run sold out quickly despite the fact that lavish illustrations made it an expensive book by the standards of the time. It seemed that it was indeed to novel that would revitalise Dickens’ finances. It therefore came as a shock to him when, early in 1844, a publishing company called Lee and Haddock published a novel called A Christmas Ghost Story. It had the same story line and the same characters as A Christmas Carol. There was definitely something fishy about Lee and Haddock’s publication. They had clearly plagiarised Dickens’ book. Like I did when I wrote my recent blog. Ahem.

Dickens instructed his solicitors to seek an injunction to prevent the sale of A Christmas Ghost Story and the judge found resoundingly in his favour, agreeing that Lee and Haddock had clearly stolen his novel. The injunction was duly granted.

This, however, was not the end of the story and this is where things started to go badly wrong for the great author. While the injunction prevented Lee and Haddock from selling any more copies of A Christmas Ghost Story, it didn’t compensate Dickens for his lost revenue from the copies that had already been sold. He’d also been incensed by the arguments Lee and Haddock had used in the injunction proceedings. They had claimed that their novel was far better than Dickens’ original, correcting errors in the storyline, strengthening the characters and being generally better written. They claimed that their version was so superior that it should be considered to be a completely different work. Essentially, they had based their defence on criticising Dickens’ ability as a writer. Dickens instructed his lawyers to sue Lee and Haddock for damages.

As it turned out, the damages claim never went to court. The strength of the judge’s comments in the injunction proceedings had made it clear to Lee and Haddock that they had no prospect of success and they quickly settled with Dickens, agreeing to pay damages and his legal costs.

Success for Dickens? Unfortunately not. There was a further twist in this real life Dickensian tale. Lee and Haddock promptly declared themselves bankrupt. Dickens never received his damages and was left with a legal bill that would come to nearly £90,000 in today’s money, pretty much wiping out his profits from A Christmas Carol.

He made two big mistakes. First, because of his annoyance at Lee and Haddock’s criticism of his writing style, he allowed a legal matter to become a matter of principle. This is still not uncommon in the cases we see today. The problem is that when an issue becomes a matter of principle, good judgement can fly out of the window.

Dickens’ second mistake was that he sued Lee and Haddock for damages without first considering their financial standing and ability to pay. There’s little point in suing someone for damages if they don’t have the money to pay you.

There was, of course, a happy ending for Dickens. The success of A Christmas Carol restored his reputation and he became a wealthy man from the success of his later novels. His difficulties over a Christmas Carol, however, have a moral that’s relevant to the present day. If you think you may be involved in litigation, it’s crucial that you take proper advice from a solicitor at the earliest opportunity.

At Harrowells, we have a long history of advising clients in litigation matters (our firm was founded shortly after Dickens’ death). We have the experience to see the wider picture and provide you with the guidance that will ensure you don’t end up in a Bleak House.

For further advice, contact Mark Jones or his colleagues in Harrowells’ Litigation Department.

Our articles are intended for general information purposes only and are not a substitute for professional advice tailored to your specific circumstances. We are always very happy to discuss any plans, issues or concerns you may have and to clarify how we might be able to help. We cannot accept responsibility for any loss as a result of acts or omissions taken in respect of this article.