How do you sue a witch for breach of contract?

Times Online, March 23, 2007

A lawyer’s mind is a scary place. I know this because I have one (if not necessarily a lawyer's temperament). But even a dilettante like me is capable of lapsing into gratuitous legal analysis at the drop of a hat. Take last Sunday, for example.

I picked up a newspaper that is best left unidentified to discover that one of its columnists had written a defamatory piece about someone I know. I was surprised to read of the columnist’s views, not so much because they were incomprehensible but because they were clearly in the legal risk category.

My acquaintance was portrayed as a misanthrope whose recent departure from a position of public prominence in the village formerly known as home to me as well as him was greeted with delight by all and sundry. The objective summary of the facts is that his departure was mourned by some people and lauded by others. However, having taken the time to get to know the individual in question, I would not cast him in so unappealing a light as did the columnist.

As I was analyzing the legal rights, the dog approached me with a request that I take her for a walk. I felt obliged, as if subject to a contractual obligation, and so set off around my new village. On my travels I bumped into the village witch. She is officially sanctioned as such by the council, who give her a grant to practise her craft. As I nodded in her direction I found myself wondering about the intricacies of her role. Under exactly what terms, as stipulated by the council, had she been given her grant? And what would the council’s view be if an application for a grant were to be made by a male, someone who wished to act as the village wizard?

It seemed to me that the council would be guilty of sex discrimination, whether direct, indirect or any which way you like it, were it to adopt a grants-for-witches only policy. The dog, happy that I had fulfilled the terms of our agreement in taking her for a walk, seemed to have no comment on the matter and I set off for my next task, a trip to the supermarket. I collected the various goods that my wife, acting pursuant to the custom and practice of our marriage, had asked me to procure, and stood in the queue at the checkout, once again wondering about the columnist’s piece on my friend. As I did so something unnerved me. The person in front did not place the supermarket’s marker on the conveyer belt, that which separates the purchases he wished to make from mine.

It felt as if a strange kind of spell had been cast, something to invert the norm, for lawyers know that an implied contract exists among customers at supermarket checkouts. Once you complete placing your pickle, marmite, steak, wine and the DVD you didn’t need to buy on the conveyer belt, you put the marker in place and look discreetly at the person behind you, who then says “thanks”. He then does the same thing, and so it goes on, ad infinitum, everyone observing this quaint ritual in the same way that I am contractually obliged to walk my dog.

And yet this man did not put the marker down. I clung on to my composure as best I could and decided to fill the car up with petrol. At the garage, I reflected on the contract that is formed when one places fuel pump nozzle in petrol tank, or rather, to be precise, when one depresses the lever on the pump, whether it is in the tank or, heaven forbid, somewhere else. Having filled the car up I paid, as one does, and drove home, thinking once again about the column I had read earlier that day and wondering if it had been read for libel. As I was parking my car I again saw the witch. Perhaps, given her vocation, she would know? I could explain the facts, she could gaze into her crystal ball and stoke her cauldron, rattle off an incantation or two and I’d have the answer.

But just as I was about to go and ask her, I thought: what if she got it wrong? How do you sue a witch for breach of contract? Does a witch even operate pursuant to contract, or are any such retainers void for immorality? Not for the first time, I felt haunted. Not by the witch, or even any putative village wizards, but by the dread realisation: once a lawyer, always a lawyer.