The negotiable cow is the common name of a fictitous legal case known as Board of Inland Revenue v Haddock (heard jointly with R v Haddock) written by the humourist A. P. Herbert for Punch magazine as part of his series of Misleading Cases in the Common Law. The case did evolve into something of an urban legend, and periodically assertions are made that it was a true case.
The case involved a Mr Albert Haddock, who was usually the ever unfortunate litigant in Herbert's writings. In relation to this case, Mr Haddock had been in profound disagreement with the Collector of Taxes in relation the size of Mr Haddock's tax bill.
Mr Haddock complained that the sum demanded was excessive, particularly in view of the inadequate consideration which he believed that he received from that Government in terms of service.1 Eventually the Collector of Taxes demanded the sum of fifty seven pounds, ten shillings.
One morning shortly thereafter Mr Haddock appeared at the offices of the Collector of Taxes, and delivered to him a large white cow "of malevolent aspect". On the cow was 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 (and may he rot!) L 57/10/0
Mr Haddock tendered the cow to the Collector in payment of his tax bill and promptly demanded a receipt.
During the "hearing", the fictitious judge, Sir Basil String, enquired whether stamp duty had been paid on the negotiable instrument. The fictitious prosecutor, Sir Joshua Hoot KC confirmed that a two-penny stamp was affixed to the dexter horn of the cow.
The Collector had declined to accept the cow, and had objected that it would be impossible to pay the cow into a bank account. Perhaps unhelpfully, Mr Haddock suggested that the Collector could endorse the cow to any third party to whom the Collector might owe money, adding mischievously that "there must be many persons in that position".
Sir Joshua gravely informed the court that the Collector did in fact endeavour to endorse the bovine cheque on its back, which was to say, in this case, on the abdomen of the cow. However, Sir Joshua explained: "the cow ... appeared to resent endorsement and adopted a menacing posture."
The Collector then abandoned the attempt, and declined to take the cheque. Mr Haddock then led the cow away and was subsequently arrested in Trafalgar Square for causing an obstruction, leading to the co-joined criminal case, R v Haddock.
Mr Haddock testified that he had tendered a cheque in payment of income tax. A cheque was only an order to a bank to pay money to the person in possession of the cheque or a person named on the cheque, and there was nothing in statute or customary law to say that that order must be written on a piece of paper of any specified dimensions.
A cheque, Mr Haddock argued, could be written on a piece of notepaper. He testified that he himself 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 thought that there was no distinction in law between a cheque written on a napkin and a cheque written on a cow.
In relation to the criminal prosecution, Mr Haddock said 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.
The judge, being heavily sympathetic to Mr Haddock, found in his favour on both the tax claim and the prosecution for causing a disturbance.