The man who sued over a lack of Christmas cheer

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Swiss yodellersImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
A lack of yodelling was no laughing matter for one lawyer

Hundreds of thousands of people in the UK go abroad for Christmas, for sunshine or snow - but festive holidays can sometimes go wrong, as one consumer champion discovered almost half a century ago.

James Jarvis was ready for a great Christmas away. In the summer of 1969, he booked a skiing trip to the resort of Morlialp, Switzerland, the brochure promising a "house-party holiday", with an English-speaking hotelier, a bar open several nights a week and an atmosphere of "Gemutlichkeit" - a German word for warmth and good cheer.

Mr Jarvis, a solicitor for Barking Council, set off from Gatwick on 20 December, looking forward to a fondue party, daily tea and cakes and a "yodeller evening".

But when he arrived at the Hotel Krone to begin his 15-day holiday - costing £63.90 - he was less than elated.

Thirteen people were staying there. The cakes turned out to be potato crisps and dry nutcakes. The bar opened on only one night.

The evening of yodelling was a particular disappointment, consisting of a man turning up in his working clothes and singing "four or five songs very quickly".

The second week at the hotel was worse. The other guests went home, leaving Mr Jarvis alone with the owner, who could not, in fact, speak English.

Image source, Getty Images

The skiing was dreadful too. Only 3ft-long mini-skis were available for the first week. For the second week, full-sized skis were available but the boots rubbed Mr Jarvis's feet, leaving him unable to enjoy the slopes, which were not very near the hotel.

So, after he returned to the UK, on 3 January 1970, he sued the tour operator, Swans Tours Limited. Mr Jarvis, who was in his mid-30s, won and was awarded £31.72 in damages - roughly half of what he had spent.

"During the first week, he got a holiday in Switzerland which was to some extent inferior," said the judge, "and, as to the second week, he got a holiday which was very largely inferior."

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Image caption,
Lord Denning said James Jarvis should be compensated for loss of enjoyment

Mr Jarvis, who had used his annual leave allocation for the trip, wasn't happy with the award, so he took the case to the Court of Appeal, where, in 1972, it was increased to £125.

"I think the judge was in error in taking the sum paid for the holiday, £63.90, and halving it," wrote the Master of the Rolls, Lord Denning, in his judgement. "The right measure of damages is to compensate him for the loss of entertainment and enjoyment which he was promised, and which he did not get."

Lord Justice Davies added: "When a man has paid for and properly expects an invigorating and amusing holiday and, through no fault of his, returns home dejected because his expectations have been largely unfulfilled, in my judgment it would be quite wrong to say that his disappointment must find no reflection in the damages to be awarded."

"Instead of 'a great time'," he said, "the plaintiff's reasonable and proper hopes were largely and lamentably unfulfilled."

The £125 Mr Jarvis received would be worth more than £1,500 today.

"He did well," says Mark Woloshak, principal lawyer at the firm Slater and Gordon. "Lord Denning was the sort of judge who made decisions that other judges wouldn't necessarily make. He was brave in deciding what should and shouldn't be awarded."

Image source, Science & Society Picture Library
Image caption,
Crisps, rather than cakes, were provided

But not many complainants get double the price of a holiday in compensation.

The Association of British Travel Agents says it remains "unusual to get the whole holiday cost back".

"Only if the holiday was a total disaster from start to finish or if your disappointment and expenses were very substantial can you expect a full refund."

Courts accepting a "loss of enjoyment" by tourists tend to award damages depending on the importance of the holiday.

So, the highest amounts go to people going abroad to get married.

Next on the hierarchy are honeymoons, followed by "special" breaks - and then "ordinary" holidays.

Mr Jarvis's experience and tenacity haven't resulted in decades of huge payouts for unsatisfied tourists.

But the idea of loss of enjoyment - rather than tangible aspects of a holiday, such as flights, accommodation, skiing, fondue, yodelling - being grounds for legal action was established by the Court of Appeal's ruling.

"James Jarvis made a bold and effective claim for the holidaymaker's right to get what they paid for - and, if it isn't delivered, to ask for a reasonable amount of compensation which goes beyond the cost of the holiday," says Simon Calder, senior travel editor for the Independent.

"The principle that Mr Jarvis established remains relevant today."