No, gentle reader, this is not about what you think it is. I do not know whether the ban on sale of cattle for slaughter is a negotiable issue or not. In any case, that topic is not on my mind as I write this.
This is about one of the sixty-six stories in the anthology 'Uncommon Law' by A P Herbert. Titled 'Board of Inland Revenue v Haddock', this hilarious story was originally written in the late 1920's for 'Punch' by the humorist as part of his series of Misleading Cases in the Common Law. The fictitious case has evolved, over time, into an urban legend.
The hero of the story is Mr Albert Haddock assessed to income tax by the government office. Haddock considers the sum excessive, particularly in view of the limited range of services taxpayers get from the government. Eventually, the Collector demands £57.
Haddock appears at the offices of the Collector of Taxes and delivers a white cow "of malevolent aspect". On the cow is stencilled in red ink: "To the London and Literary Bank Limited. Pay the Collector of Taxes, who is no gentleman, or Order, the sum of fifty seven pounds £57 (and may he rot!)" and his signature is affixed below it.
Haddock tenders the cow in payment of the tax dues and demands a receipt. The collector refuses to accept the cow, objecting that it would be impossible to pay it into a bank account. Haddock suggests that he may endorse the cow to a third party to whom he might owe money, adding that "there must be many persons in that position". The collector tries to endorse the cheque on the bovine back, in this case on the abdomen. However, the cow does not co-operate.
The collector abandons the attempt. Declining to take the 'cheque', he demands payment in cash. Haddock leads the cow away and causes an obstruction in Trafalgar Square. He gets arrested, leading to the co-joined criminal case, R. v Haddock.
During the hearing, Haddock testifies that he had tendered a 'cheque' in payment of income tax. A cheque is only an order to a bank to pay money to the person named on the cheque or having a legal title to the cheque. There is nothing in law to say it must be on paper of specified dimensions. A cheque, he argues, can be written on notepaper. He says he had "drawn cheques on the backs of menus, on napkins, on handkerchiefs, on the labels of wine bottles; all these cheques had been duly honoured by his bank and passed through the Bankers’ Clearing House". He argues that there is no distinction in law between a cheque on a napkin and a cheque on a cow.
The judge, Sir Basil String, enquires whether stamp duty had been paid. (In English law, as it existed then, negotiable instruments attracted stamp duty.) The prosecutor, Sir Joshua Hoot KC confirms that a two-penny stamp had been affixed to the dexter horn of the cow.
Sir Joshua informs the court that the collector did try to endorse the cheque on its back, in this case on the abdomen. However, Sir Joshua explains: "the cow ... appeared to resent endorsement and adopted a menacing posture."
When asked as to motive, Haddock says he had not a piece of paper to hand. Horses and other animals used to be seen frequently in the streets of London. He admits on cross-examination that he may have had in his mind an idea to ridicule the taxman. "But why not? There is no law against ridiculing the income tax."
In relation to the criminal prosecution, Haddock says it was a nice thing if in the heart of the commercial capital of the world a man could not convey a negotiable instrument down the street without being arrested. If a disturbance was caused by a crowd, the policeman should arrest the crowd, not him.