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Legal and Equitable Jokes

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Author Charles Dickens
Genres Prose: Digest; Review i
Prose: Leading Article i
Prose: Short Fiction i
Subjects Great Britain—Politics and Government
Law; Lawyers; Justice; Courts; Trials
Money; Finance; Banking; Investments; Taxation; Insurance; Debt; Inheritance and Succession
Work; Work and Family; Occupations; Professions; Wages
Other Details
Printed : 23/9/1854
Journal : Household Words
Volume : Volume X
Magazine : No. 235
Office Book Notes
Views : 698

This article, inspired by Dickens's reading of reports sent to him by Wills of a barrister's evidence to a Parliamentary Select Committee on County Courts (May 1854), reads like a sort of pendant or postscript to Bleak House, though Dickens believed wehn he sent article to Wills that it was 'a new subject with us' (i.e. in HW; he was forgetting an earlier article on County Courts called 'Law at a Low Price' by Wills and W. T. Haly published in the issue for 18 May 1850).

The barrister whose evidence so impressed Dickens was Graham Willmore, QC, who had in 1850 sent Dickens a copy of his pamphlet Is Trial by Jury Worth Keeping? Willmore feared that recent Acts empowering magistrates to convict summarily in certain petty larceny cases threatened to erode the jury system; Dickens disagreed with him but praised his 'temperate' tone (Pilgrim, Vol. VI, pp. 33-34).

In his Annals of Our Time Joseph Irving noted under the date 23 October 1852 the 'demise of the legal fictions "John Doe" and "Richard Roe"'. I have been unable to ascertain when evening sittings at the Old Bailey were discontinued. In pargraph 4 Dickens alludes to the Law of Evidence Amendment Act of 1852, which enacted that the parties in a civil action should be treated as competent witnesses, thus for the first time permitting them to be examined and cross-examined in court.

Dickens's ironic praise in paragraph 3 of testimony given by officers of the 46th regiment refers to a recent public scandal about a court-martial (see Vol. 3 in the Dent edition of Dickens's Journalism, p. 331).

Literary allusions

  • 'favourite animal of Whig governments...': Dickens may here be recalling Smith's words in his Letter on the Ballot, 'that great primum mobile of all human affairs, the barrister of six years' standing' (The Works of the Reverent Sydney Smith [new edn, 1854], Vol. 3, p. 454);
  • 'walk in the same ... life': The Catechism, The Book of Common Prayer.

Author: Michael Slater; © J. M. Dent/Orion Publishing Group, Dickens' Journalism Volume III: 'Gone Astray' and Other Papers from Household Words, 1851-1859, 1998.

DJO gratefully acknowledges permission to reproduce this material.

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