Bleak House And The Court of Chancery

My legally minded book choice to re-read this holiday break is Bleak House by Charles Dickens. In Bleak House, the courts are more than a backdrop to the story but the elemental building blocks of the story’s structure. The opening chapter tells all as the Court of Chancery obscures characters in its process and procedure. The Court is thus cast as the arch-nemesis of all.

Dickens published Bleak House in installments in 1852 to 1853. The novel reflects the English Court of Chancery as it was in the 1800s. This was a Court of Equity, originally the court of redress for those who could not find legal remedies in the common law system. An English equivalent to the American Judge Judy. The Lord High Chancellor created the court in the 1500s after years of serving as the King’s delegate in deciding citizens’ petitions to the King. See the English National Archives website for a review of ancient petitions from the time of Henry III to James I. Shakespeare’s Will is also available on this website. Also peruse Chancery decisions online from 1606.

The rule of law in Chancery was that of equity and fairness, not of the rule of law. As depicted in the novel, by the time of Bleak House the Chancery Court was awash in deadlock (a pun on Bleak House) and inequities. Cases before that court took many years to come to fruition and, as in Bleak House, more often than naught would come to an ignominious end as lawyers’ fees dissipated whatever ‘equity’ remained in the case.

Presently, the Court of Chancery is part of the English High Court of Justice. There are still Chancery courts found in some jurisdictions of the United States, such as Delaware. So too Canada had a Court of Chancery, which merged with common law courts in 1881.

A prime example of an English Chancery Court decision can be found in Fletcher v. Fletcher from 1844. Jacob Fletcher filed the lawsuit as the “natural” or illegitimate son of the testator, Ellis Fletcher, for the large sum of 60,000 pounds. Ellis died ten years earlier but the document establishing this claim was not uncovered until much later. Indeed, the claim was found wrapped up in a “brown paper parcel” and in the personal papers of the deceased. The defendants in the suit are the “infant children” of the deceased and supposedly legitimate. The Vice-Chancellor, however, finds in favour of Jacob.

Although the case does not have the drama of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, it does have the elements of intrigue and heartbreak. Every lawsuit is a story and a narrative of the past. From law to literature as a reported decision comes to life in the pages of Bleak House!

Another alternative is to watch the outstanding rendition of Bleak House as presented by PBS on Masterpiece Theatre. Canadian actress, Gillian Anderson, is sublime in her role as Lady Dedlock. The direction and cinematography is uniquely modern, yet holds true to the period piece genre.