Hard cases, good law

A light hearted problem involving Western Australian marsupials and Formula One racing was the subject of vigorous argument at the Shearman and Sterling, University of Oxford Mooting Competition. A racing car driver wanted to buy test driving time at a race track with a monopoly on this service. The track owner refused but relented after implicit threats to report his Quokka smuggling plan to the authorities. However, after receiving full payment the owner supplied only half the driving time. Although it turned out that the driver was an atrocious driver and hated race car driving, he sued for damages for breach of contract. The owner alleged that the contract was voidable for duress. Twelve exceptional teams were selected from dozens of skeleton arguments and these teams lined up on Saturday 6 February 2010 for the moot set in the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.

After a morning and afternoon semi-finals of mooting judged by Professor Endicott, and Senior Associates and Partners of Shearman and Sterling, two teams advanced to the Grand Final. Philip Ahlquist (Magdalen) and Simon Kerry (Merton), representing the owner, argued that the contract was voidable for duress because the threats amounted to duress and the owner had no reasonable alternative than to submit to the threat rather than face the potential ruin of a police investigation. Leaving no option open to him other than to provide the racing time. Alternatively, they argued that damages should be nominal because the driver had suffered no real loss and there was no suggestion that the driver would ever want to drive again. On the other hand Hannah Glover (Merton) and Laura Fraser (Merton) argued that the contract was not vitiated by duress because the driver could, and did, abandon his crazed illegal scheme; further, they argued that damages ought to be substantial and that the House of Lords decision in Alfred McAlpine Construction Ltd v Panatown Ltd [2001] 1 AC 518 ought to be overruled.

The result was extremely close. Lord Justice Rix kindly took time out from his duties at the Court of Appeal to judge the final and produced a careful, witty and detailed decision rejecting the arguments of the owner and awarding damages. The winners of the moot, in a very tight contest, were Philip Ahlquist and Simon Kerry.

James Edelman
Faculty Mooting Officer