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The rights you have, and some you don't

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Laws come from ancient tomes, which for peace of mind might best be left unopened, Frank O'Shea writes.

The Magna Carta.

The Magna Carta. Photo: Chris Lane

We should be thankful that we live in a country where we have so many rights: whole bags of them, with new ones being added all the time. Many of these rights go back to the Magna Carta, a document that says the king cannot do what he likes with you or your daughters. That we don't have a king is neither here nor there; the important thing is that this document exists in London and can be consulted by people who can read Latin.

Since I cannot read Latin, I give here a kind of wiki translation of one of the clauses - please note that the capitals are from the original. ''Anyone in his Majesty's Realms who suffers some Misfortune due to the Negligence of someone else shall be able to require that person to provide Redress before the Court.'' After several wherefores and hereinafters, the document points out that though the clause refers to injury caused by a person, it must also be interpreted as referring to companies, bodies corporate, corporations or public institutions, particularly where such entities are or should have insurance.

(Come behind these brackets with me for a minute, because I want to point out that there are also certain rights you don't have. You don't have the right to smoke in a pub, or to ground your club in a hazard, or to drive your car on a part of the road that is painted green, or to put kitchen waste in the recycle bin. In fact, there are almost as many rights that you don't have as those you do. Still, we are always told not to look on the negatives in life and to concentrate instead on the positives. Ok, we can leave the brackets now and go back to what we were talking about.)

Say, for example, you are walking along and you trip over a piece of footpath that has been pushed up by the roots of a tree. You hurt your knee and tear your trousers, but these injuries are minor compared to the shame and mental anguish you endure, the time off work, loss of income, inability to perform your conjugal duties. There is an industry called psychology prepared to put big words on your misery and another called media prepared to show the world what we have to put up with because we have elected such idiots to run the city. Neither comes cheap, but you hope that you won't need them and can use the Magna Carta to obtain some compensation for your distress. Sorry, for your unresolved issues.

Now all you need is a legal firm to take on your case. Because they do not do anything as vulgar as advertising, it is not easy to find a suitable firm. There is one that uses a child with what looks like a Hitler moustache, and another that uses a former footballer in an expensive suit that would have his one-time teammates laughing loudly at him, but you feel that both of those would tend to trivialise your great anguish. So you select a firm that in their Yellow Pages entry uses the words family, compensation and probate.

This firm suggests that you could take a case against the roads authority and another against Chief Minister Katy Gallagher and another against the Tuggeranong store that sold you the runners you were wearing at the time you tripped over. It is a shop with a name that rhymes with the plural of liver, by coincidence that part of your body that would be in danger if anyone took your claim seriously and gave you money.

The legal firm sends you a bill for a large amount of money for the time you sat in their office. It is made out in 10-minute intervals and includes $100 for a phone call and $200 for photocopying. This is a big surprise to you because you were under the impression that probate implied that this firm worked for free, your cheapskate Latin imagining that the word had some relationship with pro bono.

So you go back to the firm, but refuse to sit down, in the futile hope that this will make any difference to what they charge. You leave with two pieces of advice rattling around in your addled brain. The first is ''if you're not in, you can't win'', the same reason you queue for half an hour to buy tickets in super lotteries and hardly an endorsement of the legal process. The other advice they give you is along the lines, ''it is very difficult to disprove certain kinds of pain''. Unfortunately, that is accompanied by a reference to expert witnesses, most of whom live interstate and fly business class. You are also told that your wife would not be considered an expert witness.

If I were you, I'd limp away from the whole thing.

Frank O'Shea is a Canberra writer.

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