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Could we have used the law to save the miller’s daughter from Rumpelstiltskin?

15th December 2016

The onset of December brings a plethora of Christmasy films – so, when I recently turned on the TV and saw Rumpelstiltskin dancing around on the screen, it set me thinking. For those who are unfamiliar with the tale, gnome-like Rumpelstiltskin bails out a poor miller’s daughter by fulfilling her obligation to spin straw into gold (on pain of death). The first time he agrees to help her in return for a necklace, the second time for a ring and the third time, when she has nothing left to trade, for the promise that she’ll hand over her first-born child.

Now, all this is fairy-tale stuff but, in the real world, could we have used the law to get her out of her terrible bargain?

Although a court may not be able to save you from pure stupidity, in this case I’m tempted to suggest that yes, decent legal representation from the team here at George Ide could have saved the day and brought about a ‘fairy tale’ ending in the eyes of the law.

“How on earth?!” I hear you cry. Well, a good place to start may be to consider whether a bargain can legally bind. Sadly (in this case), yes it can – in law it’s a contract whether or not it’s written down. The fact that here it was concluded verbally doesn’t make the contract invalid.

There are, however, four further legal opportunities for wiggle room…

Certainty of terms is essential to render a contract enforceable — so what happens if no baby materialises or the miller’s daughter chooses to wait years before starting a family? A sympathetic court would surely accept that, without a specified timescale for the baby’s arrival or against the possibility that the miller’s daughter may remain childless, there is no certain end-date for the contract, thus no certainty. And this would constitute strong grounds for voiding the contract.

We will also assume that the miller’s daughter is younger than 18 years old, which makes her a minor in the eyes of the law. Legally, minors cannot enter into enforceable contracts so, if indeed she is under-age, Rumpelstiltskin’s contract is voidable.

Next, let’s consider the issue of duress. Entering into a pact to avoid execution certainly seems like a cut-and-dried case of duress and although Rumpelstiltskin may not have applied the pressure himself, he wasted no time in taking advantage of a serious threat to the miller’s daughter’s well-being.

And fourthly, there’s the ill-defined principle of unconscionable bargains. In this respect we are required to prove three things: that the terms of the transaction are harsh; that bargaining power is unequal; that the defendant is guilty of unconscionable conduct, behaving in a morally reprehensible way. Aha! Well, this is surely a case of first-born sacrifice, young girl versus evil gnome, and bargaining for babies! Yup, on these grounds, I’m more than tempted to say that we’re looking good.

So, under the law, all is certainly not lost. With our expert legal team on her side, the miller’s daughter would have had a good chance of voiding or rescinding the bargain before parting with her child or entering into the next bargain and, of course, they could both have lived happily ever-after.

Perhaps she could even have counter-claimed for the return of her possessions…

Danii Jhurry-Wright. partner, commercial property.

Business, Commercial Property, General, George Ide, News
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