Saturday, 18 September 2010

The Bet

Omeo Court House

When I worked in Gippsland, I regularly appeared in the Omeo Court. There was always something interesting happening in the Omeo Court. I had one client called Merv, who worked driving a grader for what was then called the Country Roads Board, and had ten children. 

Merv liked a drink. There were two hotels in Omeo – the Golden Age, better known as the “bottom pub”, and Faithfull’s, better known as the “top pub”. Merv had been banned from the bottom pub, and so, on this particular evening in the late 1970s, was drinking in the top pub, along with another bloke - also banned from the bottom pub – Charlie.

They were well in their cups, and Charlie turned to Merv late in the night and said “You’re an alcoholic.”
“I am not – I could give up the drink any time I liked.”
“I bet you $1,000 you could not stop drinking and smoking for six months.”
“You’re on.”

$1,000 was a lot of money in those days, especially to a person like Merv. In the end, they both bet each other that they could not stay off the grog and the smokes for six months. Merv couldn’t afford to offer $1000, so he put up $200.  They went to the Omeo branch of the CBA bank, and opened a joint account for the purpose.

The six months went by. Both of them were shouted drinks by everyone in town. Offered smokes. No, they just drank lemon squashes. They both kept to the terms of their bet.
At the end of the time, Merv put out his hand for his money. “No,” said Charlie, “I don’t believe you could have kept to the bet. But I did, and I want my $200.”
Merv was furious. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He’d spent six months living for this moment.

They argued and argued, but Charlie wouldn’t budge. Eventually they went to the bank manager and asked him to adjudicate. He said he wasn’t going to adjudicate, and they could both take out the money that they put in. So, instead of his $1,000, Merv received just $200, and reckoned he was $800 out of pocket.

Months went by. It was Grand Final day in 1979, Carlton v Collingwood. Charlie and Merv, along with a hundred other drinkers, were at the top hotel. The bet was over now, and they were both well and truly drinking again.
The bar at the top hotel is arranged as a large “U”. Near one end of the bar, Charlie had two $50 dollar notes, and was calling out “Come on, who’ll bet with me – I’m backing Collingwood.” And he slapped his fifty dollar notes down on the table.

Merv was standing just to his left. Charlie was looking at the rest of the bar to his right. Merv sidled up to Charlie. In full view of the 100 drinkers in the bar, and with a wink to them all,
Merv picked up the two $50 notes and pocketed them. Then he tapped Charlie on the shoulder and said “That’s 700 you owe me, Charlie.”

Charlie was furious. He went to the police station, staffed by a single Sergeant of police, and laid a complaint of theft.

The policeman went down to the Omeo Highway where Merv was working on his grader and hauled him back to the police station for a record of interview.

Confronted with the allegation of theft, and with 100 witnesses to the fact that he had taken the money, Merv made no mention of the bet – he denied taking the money.
He was duly charged, and he came to me to represent him.

The court room was packed with every drinker from miles around. The first witness was Charlie. I had one old crone, smelling of sherry at that early hour, telling me I should ask him about this and that previous outrage.

I cross examined him. At first, he denied there had been any bet at all with Merv. We had the bank manager in court on subpoena – and when I pointed out that he would be giving evidence, Charlie reluctantly admitted that there had been a bet, but reverted to claiming Merv had not fulfilled his part of the bargain. Eventually he admitted that Merv had used the words “That’s 700 you owe me, Charlie”.

My client gave evidence, and admitted that he had lied to the police, but explained why he had taken the money.

I argued that it was not a bet at all (which is unenforceable at law) but a prize, as it depended on the conduct of the parties. But in any event the defence was a claim of right, and even a mistake of law would not vitiate a claim of right.
We won.

A few months later Merv came to see me in my office in Bairnsdale. He thanked me for my help in the case, and wondered if I could now take action against Charlie to get the remainder of the money back.

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