Landmark Cases in English Legal History: Influential Decisions That Shaped the Law

English history is rich with cases that have left a mark on the legal landscape. From pinpointing when someone is meant to provide a duty of care, to understanding what mental capacity is, various cases have helped create the guides and framework used in contemporary legal work. 

In this exploration of key cases, we delve into some of the trials and decisions that have become touchstones for legal practitioners, scholars and society at large.

Banks v. Goodfellow (1870): Testamentary Capacity

John Banks was the owner of a large estate consisting of 15 cottages residing in the Lake District. He made a Will that left everything to his niece who died two years after him. The estates and assets were then left to her half brother (whom Banks was not related to). This led to a dispute from the son of Bank’s half brother, who declared that Banks was unfit and not of sound mind when he created that Will – the reason being that throughout his life, Banks showed symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. This case became of vital importance to the UK as it presented an example of what it means to be of ‘sound mind’ and it helped the court establish what criteria for mental capacity is required to make a valid Will. 

The judgement outlined that a person must understand the nature of the act, the extent of their property, and the claims of potential beneficiaries. Although Banks had mental health issues, he understood what a Will was and why he was making it. Moreover, the outlines of his Will seemed rational as he gave the property to his sole surviving family member (who did in fact live with him at the time of his death).

Donoghue v. Stevenson (1932): The Birth of the Duty of Care

A repugnant discovery in an ice-cream float led to a court case that revolutionised tort law and the principle of duty of care. 

In 1928, May Donoghue visited a cafe in Paisley where her friend had already purchased a ginger beer for her to pour on top of her ice cream. After consuming some of the ice cream float, and whilst her friend was pouring out the remainder of the ginger beer, a decomposed snail floated out of the bottle. Two weeks later Mrs. Donoghue had to seek emergency treatment for severe gastroenteritis and shock. This led to Mrs. Donoghue’s decision to sue David Stevenson, the person who produced the ginger beer, for £500 in damages due to a breach of duty of care. 

The House of Lords, in its judgement, laid down the principle of duty of care, which later became a foundation for modern negligence law. The “neighbour principle” declared that a person must take reasonable care to avoid acts or omissions that could cause reasonable foreseeable harm to their neighbour. He expanded the concept of neighbour to mean anyone who might be affected by one’s actions. This case laid the groundwork for subsequent developments in the law of negligence, providing a framework for determining when a duty of care arises and the standard of care expected.

Wheeldon v. Burrows (1879): Implied Easements

This case involved the sale of land by Mr. Tetley to two separate parties, Mr. Burrows and Mr. Wheeldon. Mr. Burrows bought the land with a workshop on it whilst Mr. Wheeldon purchased the adjoining 533m² ‘building land’. The case was initiated because Mrs. Burrows built a wall on the land, which ended up obstructing the limited light that solely illuminated the workshop. This led to Wheeldon taking down the structure, as he believed that the light was an easement that he was entitled to on his property.

The key legal principle in Wheeldon v Burrows dictates that when you sell part of a property, the new owner receives all the necessary rights for “reasonable enjoyment” unless they are specifically excluded. The rights that pass on need to be continuous, noticeable, and important for using the land properly. In this case, Mr. Tetley did not reserve the right of access to light from the windows, and therefore, no such right passed to Mr. Burrows. Therefore, Mrs. Wheeldon building on her land did not break any implied easement, and Mr. Burrows could not claim that he had a right to the light passing through Wheeldon’s property.

Wheeldon v Burrows remains an influential case in land law, continuing to shape the understanding of implied easements in land transactions.

White v. Jones (1995): Solicitor’s Duty of Care

In March 1986 Mr Barratt had engaged with the legal firm White & Sons to draft his Will. At the time of drafting, he had fallen out with his two daughters and asked that they be removed as beneficiaries from the Will. Within the next four months of the Will’s creation, the daughters and father ended up reconciling. Mr Barratt then sent a letter to his solicitors to change the Will and allow them to inherit £9000 between them – this letter was received on the 17th July. When Mr Barratt died on the 14th of September, the solicitor who was involved in rewriting his Will had not done so, and therefore the Will written earlier that year was unrevoked. This negligence led to both daughters being excluded from inheriting their father’s assets.

The issue at the time was that the solicitors owed no duty of care to the plaintiffs as they were not clients of the firm. Once the negligence claim reached the House of Lords, it was ruled that solicitors could owe a duty of care to intended beneficiaries, even if not named as clients. The decision held solicitors liable for negligence in the preparation of Wills, recognizing the potential impact on beneficiaries who were promised a bequest. 

This case significantly broadened the obligations of solicitors, reinforcing the principle that they must exercise reasonable care to avoid foreseeable harm not only to their clients but also to individuals identified as beneficiaries in legal documents.

The decisions from the above cases continue to influence legal practice and discourse in the modern age. The evolution of the English legal system is deeply intertwined with the precedents set by these influential judgments.

What Burt Brill & Cardens Do

It must be acknowledged that landmark cases like these aren’t the only factor used for deciding the course of action in a legal matter. For example, Banks v. Goodfellow is a great indication of what it means to have mental capacity but there are other laws and frameworks that need to be observed in conjunction, such as the Mental Capacity Act (2005). If we were to work with you on creating something which involved an assessment of the mental capacity of you or a loved one, such as an LPA, we would discuss all options and never leave you in the dark about any aspect of the process.

As well as LPAs our Private Client department also covers Wills, Trusts and probate. Our firm also has a disputes and claims department, as well as residential and commercial property services. Visit our library page and discover the different legal guides we have on offer. These guides are free to read and give you helpful tips and a better understanding of the various areas of the law.

If you would like to enquire about our services, then please call us on 01273 604 123, or email us at We look forward to hearing from you.


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