London, Jan. 18: It was cutting hair that inspired Alexander Pope’s most famous poem, marked out young women who fraternised with the Nazis and soured the Samson and Delilah relationship.
Yesterday, it was a matter of a ponytail, a pair of kitchen scissors and a bedroom in Dudley that prompted the learned minds of the London high court to consider the legal, moral and philosophical implications of the unwanted haircut.
Two senior judges spent almost an hour debating issues such as whether hair is dead or alive, what hair means to a woman and whether it is “intrinsic to the individual”, before reaching a decision on whether it was a crime for a man to cut off his ex-girlfriend’s ponytail against her will.
When, in 1712, Pope wrote his mock-heroic masterpiece The Rape of the Lock, following the hullabaloo that ensued after Lord Petre cut off a lock of hair of his beloved fellow aristocrat, Arabella Fermor, without her permission, the writer was assumed to be poking fun at the over-reaction of contemporary society.
“What dire offence from am’rous causes springs,
What mighty contests rise from trivial things,” he wrote.
But Sir Igor Judge, the president of the Queen’s bench division, and Justice Cresswell took a different view.
In the first case of its kind, they ruled that hair could be regarded as a person’s “crowning glory” and that magistrates at Dudley, West Midlands, had been wrong when they decided last June that Michael Ross Smith had no case to answer on a charge of assault occasioning actual bodily harm.
The judges heard that the unwanted haircut was given in April last year when Michelle Tether, 20, who had enjoyed an on-off relationship with Smith for five years, went to his home in Netherton, Dudley, and up to his bedroom where he was asleep.
When she woke him up, he pushed her down on the bed, produced the kitchen scissors, sat on top of her and cut off her ponytail and other hair without her consent, they were told.
Tether picked up the ponytail and left “in a distressed state”, trying later to hide her loss by wearing a baseball cap and a wig.
Refusing to convict Smith, the magistrates said there was no evidence to prove actual bodily harm, the “essential element” of the offence. But the high court judges allowed an appeal and ruled that the magistrates must continue to hear the prosecution case.
Having referred to Gray’s Anatomy, the Encyclopaedia Britannica and other authorities to discover the nature of hair and its relationship to the law, they rejected arguments that the hair growing out of a person’s head was by its nature dead and that no bodily harm could be caused by its removal.
Justice Cresswell said: “To a woman, her hair is a vitally important part of her body. It has sheen and is lifelike and is important to women. Where a significant portion of a woman’s hair is cut off without her consent, this is a serious matter ' not trivial or insignificant ' amounting to bodily harm.”