Charles Dickens Is On The Side Of Justice

I would be remiss, if I did not recognize the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens and his characterization or, more accurately, “caricature-ization” of law and justice.

In Great Expectations, Pip, the narrator of the book, defines himself through the backdrop of English law. As a child, Pip imagines a spine-chilling scene of officers of the law surreptitiously lying in wait to take him before the Assizes to avenge the bloody nose and black eye he gave a “pale young gentleman” after a fair fight.

The possibility of being brought to “justice” caused Pip to act as a stereotypical guilty man: obliterating all traces of the physical evidence against him and concocting a false explanation for the injury to his hand. Of course his furtive actions were unnecessary as only Pip’s conscious showed any taste for vengeance: in reality, the incident was a normal every day school-yard fisticuff. The presence of guilt, in this instance, was unnoticed and unimportant.

But the issue of guilt or innocence becomes important later, when a murder trial, detailed in a local newspaper, is tried by an adolescent Pip and various townspeople while drinking at the local bar. “Guilty as charged” is the general consensus except for the stranger, clearly a foreigner, who reminds the blood-thirsty ersatz jury of the presumption of innocence.

The newspaper has merely sketched the prosecutor’s evidence without the benefit of cross-examination, the man points out, a central principle in the adversarial system and a cornerstone of a fair trial. Furthermore, the accused had not as yet testified and was therefore unheard in his defence. Any jury, enthused the gentleman, holding true to their oath, would not, could not, pronounce the unfortunate prisoner guilty at such an early juncture of the case. The townspeople, being duly chastised, having seen the error of their enthusiasm, humbly retract their feelings of guilt. In the same moment, the stranger, the Londoner, is revealed as a lawyer and the bearer of Great Expectations.

I have already named Dickens’s Bleak House, in a previous posting, a must read for lawyers or anyone interested in the law for the dark and dreary atmosphere of the novel arising from the impenetrable fog of the court of Chancery. Yet, so many of Dickens’s books read like a first year law case summary as exemplified by these two, of many, legal passages found in Great Expectations.

In fact, let us return to Great Expectations in mid-scene as Pip watches Mr. Jaggers, the London lawyer from the previous passage and now his Guardian, “going at it” in the Police or Magistrate Courts in London. As I could not possibly summarize this delicious passage with any dexterity, I quote it as follows:


We dived into the City, and came up in a crowded police-court, where a blood-relation (in the murderous sense) of the deceased, with the fanciful taste in brooches, was standing at the bar, uncomfortably chewing something; while my guardian had a woman under examination or cross-examination,—I don't know which,—and was striking her, and the bench, and everybody present, with awe. If anybody, of whatsoever degree, said a word that he didn't approve of, he instantly required to have it "taken down." If anybody wouldn't make an admission, he said, "I'll have it out of you!" and if anybody made an admission, he said, "Now I have got you!" The magistrates shivered under a single bite of his finger. Thieves and thief-takers hung in dread rapture on his words, and shrank when a hair of his eyebrows turned in their direction. Which side he was on I couldn't make out, for he seemed to me to be grinding the whole place in a mill; I only know that when I stole out on tiptoe, he was not on the side of the bench; for, he was making the legs of the old gentleman who presided, quite convulsive under the table, by his denunciations of his conduct as the representative of British law and justice in that chair that day.


It is difficult, after reading this passage, to also "make out" on which side Charles Dickens was on: for English justice or against. Certainly, Dickens own personal experience with law was less than salutary as his family bore the burden and shame of debtors’ prison, a thoroughly Dickensian institution for the working poor of England who were unable to meet their financial obligations.

 

His keen insight into lawyers’ “going at it” may have also come from his experience of working as a clerk in a law office and as a court reporter at the Doctors’ Commons. The Doctors’ Commons was “a college, "or common house" of doctors of law, for the study and practice of the civil law.” Certainly, his fictional accounts of the inequities found in law and in society influenced the reformation of England’s harsh child labour laws, unveiled the intolerable conditions in the poor houses, and revealed the general imbalances between the working poor and the comfortable working class: all by-products of the Industrial Revolution.

This passion for fairness and justice was handed down to Dickens' son, Henry Fielding Dickens, who went on to become a brilliant barrister and Judge. Indeed, Henry’s son was also a successful barrister. All came full circle with Dickens’s great grand-daughter, Monica Dickens, who was a best selling novelist in the 40’s and 50’s, and founded the first Massachusetts branch of the Samaritans, a charitable organization providing support and assistance for those contemplating suicide.

All of this, however, will not stop me from ending this blog with another Dickens law quote from Oliver Twist, when Mr. Bumble, faced with the perfidy of his wife and the conclusion he too was in on the deception, states:


If the law supposes that,' said Mr. Bumble, squeezing his hat emphatically in both hands, 'the law is a ass—a idiot. If that's the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is, that his eye may be opened by experience—by experience.' Laying great stress on the repetition of these two words, Mr. Bumble fixed his hat on very tight, and putting his hands in his pockets, followed his helpmate downstairs.