In 1725, one of the most peculiar cases in British legal history was brought before the Court of Exchequer. John Everet (or Everitt) and Joseph Williams, who had gone into business together, made an oral agreement to divide all the costs and profits of their enterprise equally. But after one particularly lucrative transaction went awry, Everet became suspicious that Williams was taking more than his fair share—so he took his partner to court.
Ordinarily that wouldn’t make for such an unusual case, and indeed, the official court documents seem to suggest that nothing in the pair’s dealings was out of the ordinary: In entering into their partnership, the records show that the pair had quite rightly agreed to share the cost of all the equipment their enterprise would require, “such as horses, bridles, saddles, assistants and servants,” they were merely involved “in dealing and in buying and selling several sorts of commodities.”
But as above board as all that sounds, Everet and Williams were both highwaymen—and their “business” amounted to nothing more than robbing unsuspecting gentlemen in and around north London and the surrounding countryside.
How the case even ended up in court at all is unclear, although one account claims that it was, in fact, Williams who made the first move: After a quarrel over the value of a gold watch they had acquired in a recent robbery, Williams sued Everet for £200. When Everet failed to show up to court (perhaps understandably, given the true nature of their business, although Everet would claim he was in prison), the action against him went undefended, and Williams won not only the case but Everet’s share of the spoils as well. In response, Everet—presumably aggrieved that Williams had won the case—then raised his own case against Williams. He took the unusual step of hiring a pair of solicitors, William Wreathock and William White, to represent him. Wreathock and White, in turn, hired legal counsel, a barrister by the name of Jonathan Collins, who drew up an official complaint and took the highwaymen’s case to the Court of Exchequer.
The bill Collins compiled—which requested that Williams account for the value of the goods in question, and repay any money owed to the plaintiff—is a masterclass in legalese. At no point are the criminal aspects of Everet and Williams’s business alluded to, and instead Collins merely wrote that:
"… pursuant to the said agreement, [Everet] and the said Joseph Williams went on and proceeded jointly in the said dealing with great success on Hounslow Heath, where they dealt with a gentleman for a gold watch … [Williams informed Everet that] Finchley was a good and convenient place to deal in, and so they dealt there with several gentlemen or divers watches, rings, swords, canes, hats, cloaks, horses, bridles and other things to the value of £200 and upwards."
According to Collins’s statement, after this “deal” had been concluded, Williams took charge of all the goods the pair had acquired, but Everet became suspicious when Williams “began to shuffle with him,” and refused to give him any kind of account or inventory of the items involved.
In explaining why the dispute was being brought to court—and seemingly unaware of the irony of what he was doing—Collins declared:
"My client, John Everet, is relievable only in a Court of Equity before Your Honours, where just discoveries are made, frauds detected, and just accounts settled."
In fact, it is presumed that in bringing the case to court, Collins’s plan was to force Williams’s hand and compel him to agree to an out-of-court settlement before the case ever came before a judge. He hadn’t banked, however, on Williams holding his nerve: Collins’s bill was presented in October of 1725, and a month later, the case was officially heard in court. The court was far from impressed.
Faced with resolving a dispute between two criminals and doling out the stolen profits of an illegal enterprise, the court dismissed the case as “scandalous and impertinent”—but the judges weren’t done yet. An order was issued for the arrest of Wreathock and White, Everet’s solicitors, on a charge of contempt of court for even bringing the case to the court’s attention at all. And for his part in the fiasco, barrister Jonathan Collins was ordered to pay all the costs himself—earning him a unique place in British legal history as the only barrister ordered to pay the costs of a failed case.
With the authorities now fully aware of Everet and Williams’s activities (not to mention the precise locations they liked to ply their trade), both men were eventually apprehended and tried: Williams was hanged at Maidstone in Kent in 1727, while Everet was hanged at Tyburn in London in 1730. In one final bizarre twist, William Wreathock was found guilty of robbery five years later and sentenced to transportation in 1735.
As the curious case of Everet vs. Williams—or “The Highwayman’s Case,” as it has become known—drifted into obscurity, for many years the unlikely tale of two highwaymen taking each other to court to resolve their dispute was believed to be a myth, until a law journal found a supposed reprinting of the case, and was able to verify key information. Since then, the case has gained an understandable reputation as one of the strangest in legal history, and is frequently cited as an example of the legal principle ex dolo malo non oritur action—“no right of action can have its origin in fraud.” Or, in other words: You can’t expect the law to help when what you’re doing is illegal in the first place.