The reality is that it is rarely, if ever, a good idea to litigate on principle only. Litigation is expensive business, and the old adage of ‘not throwing good money after bad’ dictates that it’s often best to take the high road and walk away, rather than spend lots of money in an effort to recover a tiny sum or to achieve a moral victory.

I recall many a case from my own study of the law, of times when a person has litigated on principle and had it turn out very poorly for them.

The case of Balmain New Ferry Co Ltd v Robertson is one such case.

In June 1905, Mr Robertson (who was an affluent Sydney barrister), wished to catch a ferry from Sydney to Balmain. He entered the wharf through a turnstile, for a fare of one penny. Unfortunately for Mr Robertson, he missed the ferry he had hoped to catch, and would have needed to wait on the wharf for some time until the next ferry arrived. He didn’t want to wait on the wharf, so he tried to leave.

In order to leave the wharf, passengers were required to pay another penny into an exit turnstile, whether or not they had travelled on the ferry. Mr Robertson felt that he was under no obligation to pay this fare, and so tried to exit by other means and was prevented from doing so by the wharf officials.

Mr Robertson felt that he had been wronged by the ferry company and accordingly, sued them for false imprisonment and breach of contract.

Mr Robertson’s case was heard by a number of courts, first at trial and later on appeal. The case went all the way to the Privy Council in London, which at the time was the highest appeal court in the Australian court hierarchy. Mr Robertson lost his case, which had significant monetary consequences for him as the losing party in what ended up being long and protracted litigation.

A sensible and objective person ought to have suggested to Mr Robertson that he would have been better off had he simply paid the one penny fare under protest, and investigated other, non-litigious ways of protesting against what he saw as an injustice.

Of course, with the case being heard so soon after federation, and by the inaugural bench of the High Court of Australia, there were no doubt political and other agendas underpinning Mr Robertson’s desire to take this matter as far as he did. Nobody could criticise Mr Robertson for being a person who backed away from challenging an injustice in society.

However, whilst Mr Robertson’s intentions may have been grand, for a rich man, one penny was a small price to pay to avoid losing so much more by proceeding with ill advised litigation on principle only.

It can be very difficult for a person to separate their actual losses from their personal feelings regarding an accident. At Stacks Goudkamp, our friendly team of experts can advise you of your rights and entitlements in relation to any l0sses you may have suffered. To arrange a free, no obligation assessment of your claim, please call Stacks Goudkamp on 1800 25 1800, or make an online enquiry.

Written by Brett Watts.

Brett Watts is a Solicitor in Tom Goudkamp and Ruth Hudson’s Practice Group.  Brett represents people who have been injured in a variety of accidents including motor vehicle claims and public liability claims.