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Entries in bleak house (3)

Wednesday
Feb082012

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.

 

Friday
Dec302011

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.

Monday
Dec262011

Legally Minded Books to Read

In my last posting, we enjoyed some #longreads and today we will discuss even longer ones. The following is my list of 5 legally minded books to read over the holidays:

1. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky circa 1956. This book stays with you. There is no other book, which can climb into the mind of a killer with so much detail, perspective, and pity. The horror of the act is observed in the backdrop of a ruthless Russia, where poverty, corruption, and greed reign. Yet, it is tempered by a beautiful and delicate theme of redemption, which is guaranteed to leave you weeping.

2. Bleak House by Charles Dickens circa 1852. I love this book. There is no better opening chapter of a book like this one as the Court of Chancery becomes a metaphor for the thick fog spreading through London like the Angel of Death sweeping through Biblical Egypt when the Pharaoh refused to let the Israelites leave. And so too does the story spread as the wards in Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce weave through the London streets together with delicious characters like Guppy, Tulkinghorn, and Clemm.  The twists and turns in this book is pure Dickens as is the language and the tragic consequences.

3. The Onion Field by Joseph Wambaugh circa 1973. This is another book, which although I read many years ago, I think and ponder about every now and then. This true crime novel, a first for Wambaugh, chronicles a horrific crime in a California onion field and the subsequent court case, which had far reaching consequences both on a personal and societal level. Wambaugh writes a moving account of a factual case and it reads like fiction.

4. A Void (La Disparition) by Georges Perec circa 1994. This quirky book is the kind of experimental writing I find fascinating. A book written completely without the vowel "e", Perec manages to use this omission or void to highlight the Kafkaesque nature of the narrative. Originally written in French, where the vowel e is even more essential, the book is actually highly biographical. Perec, an orphaned survivor of the Holocaust, finds in his missing vowel the personal themes of loss, limitations, and emptiness.

5. Plato's Apology by Socrates. The wry wit employed by Plato as he excoriates the Senate must be experienced first hand by reading Socrates replay of Plato's trial, judgment, and death. It is brilliant rhetoric. Even to the end, Plato had the capacity to teach. Just as we today have much to learn from his logic and reasoning.