• Robert Spicer

Working class: judicial interpretations

Working classes

The phrase “working class” has significant legal connotations and has been the subject of judicial definition in a number of cases. The courts have had some difficulty dealing with the concept. For example, in Re Sanders’ Will Trusts (1954) Mr Justice Harman ruled in a case where a will stated that money should be left for providing dwellings for the working classes and their families in Pembroke Dock. The judge stated that a gift for the working classes was not a gift for the relief of poverty and did not have charitable status. He made the following points:

  • The expression “working classes” means persons who have to work for their living.

  • The “working classes” in Pembroke Dock were merely men working in the docks. An element of poverty could not be inferred.

Another example is Green & Sons v Minister of Health (1947) where the court commented:

  • “Working classes” fifty years ago denoted a class which included men working in the fields or the factories, in the docks or the mines, on the railways or on the roads, at a weekly wage. The wages of people of that class were lower than those of the other members of the community, and they were looked on as a lower class. That has all now disappeared. The social revolution in the last fifty years has made the words “working class” quite inappropriate today. There is no such separate class as the working classes.

Again, in Re Niyazi’s Will Trusts (1978):

  • … the adjectival expression “working men” plainly has some flavour of “lower income” about it, just as “upper class” has some flavour of affluence, and “middle class” some flavour of comfortable means. Of course there are impoverished members of the upper and middle classes, just as there are some “working men” who are at least of comfortable means, if not affluence: one cannot ignore the impact of such things as football pools.

We see the spectacle of judges whose experience of manual labour is limited to a few weeks during their university vacations, pontificating on the detail of the working life of those who know the real meaning of work, who have had their health ruined by shift work or who have faced redundancy. Finding against manual workers who have been seriously injured during their employment, delivering judgments in a world so remote from that of ordinary working people’s daily lives that one might as well be in fairyland, except that their arcane rulings can ruin lives.

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