Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - A Looker-On in London, by Mary H. Krout, 1899 - Chapter 7 - In the Lower Courts

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THERE is very little cause for complaint of the "law's delay" nowadays in the English courts - either the higher courts or the lower, to which the appeals of the common people, chiefly, are made, and in which they constitute the majority of those who are arraigned for misdemeanors. The impartiality of the administration of justice, while not infallible even here, is at any rate very general. Being human, and therefore not faultless, there are occasions, even in English courts, where justice miscarries, and where influence intervenes to avert punishment or to secure a mitigation of the sentence; the Maybrick case, the sentence and subsequent liberation of Dr. Jameson, being two notable instances of this. Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that if justice is not to be had in the English courts, it is not to be obtained anywhere. When the criminal is a man of high station he has been known to receive mysterious information of his threatened arrest which gave him opportunity to flee the country; but this departure was equivalent to perpetual banishment. The indictment hangs over his head so long as he lives, and should he set his foot upon English soil, after his name has once been entered upon the criminal records, his arrest is swift and certain. The cities of Europe have many such fugitives, dragging out their lives in exile, and with no hope that a friendly revolution or relaxation of police vigilance or any sort of political influence will enable [-64-] them to return finally to their native land; for which they never cease to long. In cases coming within the provisions of extradition the same vigilance is apparent, and with it, a tirelessness that nothing can baffle or discourage. The search for Jabez Balfour, the absconding and embezzling head of the Liberator Company, is an illustration of this determined effort to bring the criminal to justice.
    There is little of the reprehensible abuse of rejecting jurors upon any and every trivial ground, which in the United States interrupts the progress of trials, prolonging them outrageously, for days and even weeks. The professional juror, the man who haunts the courts that he may be summoned for jury service, apparently does not exist in England. Judges are chosen because of their fitness for office-an appointment in which politics does not figure-and the office is held during good behavior for life, or until the incumbent himself, for any reason sees fit to resign.
    The office of justice of the peace has been brought into contempt everywhere in the United States by the charlatans that have filled it and have thrived upon what they call "perquisites;" in Great Britain the position is one of honor and responsibility, and the man who holds it so respects his dignity that he seldom or never fails to avail himself of the "J. P.", which he scrupulously appends to his signature.
    An incident occurred, soon after my arrival in London, which sufficiently illustrates the promptness with which the law intervenes for the protection of society. A criminal who had been a soldier in the British army in India, in a fit of jealousy quarrelled with an unfortunate woman who refused to give him a shilling for which he had asked her, and he murdered her in the most brutal manner. There were no mitigating circumstances, and while the man was given every opportunity in the way of defense, [-65-] he was found guilty of murder and condemned to death. The sentence was carried out in less than six weeks after the murder had been committed. Equal dispatch was shown in a subsequent case. A poor old man, who lived alone in his house at Musgrove Hill, was found one morning lying in the kitchen with his skull crushed. He was a retired tradesman, and it was believed that he had a considerable sum of money concealed on the premises and when the murder was discovered it had disappeared. In their search the police found a child's toy lantern with a wick of flannelette. Two well known criminals, who had been recently released from prison were discovered missing from their homes in the East End, their families being unusually well supplied with money. A comparison of the lantern wick with a little gown worn by a child of one of the men proved to be a sufficient clue. The murderers were pursued and captured, with only a few pence remaining in their pockets of several hundred pounds, which it was known they had secured. One of them confessed, narrowly escaping being murdered by his accomplice who assaulted him savagely upon the witness stand. These two men were also given the fullest hearing, but they were executed within a very few months after the commission of their crime.
    There is a great class of sentimentalists - who oppose capital punishment and advocate imprisonment for life as a substitute. In the United States where the pardoning power is vested in the Governor, individually, upon whom enormous pressure is consequently brought to bear, and where this peculiar function becomes involved in politics, as in the case of the Chicago anarchists, imprisonment for life may become the merest travesty of justice. There are men who have been so sentenced and have died within prison walls, but it goes without saying that at least one-fourth of these remained in prison because they [-66-] were unable to command social or political influence to secure pardon. Considering its enormously over-crowded population murders are amazingly infrequent in Great Britain, and it cannot be denied that the inevitable consequence of taking life, the unerring retribution that overtakes the murderer, has been effective in bringing about this state of affairs. The admirable government, the respect for the law and the wholesome fear of its penalties, among the would-be criminal classes, are reflected in public safety, in a degree of security for life and property that does not exist in the same measure outside of the United Kingdom.
    There is no extravagant multiplication of statutes; it is not believed that mere law-making will promote order or abate evil; it is realized that disregard of a single law tends to the general contempt for all law, and consequently there is a disposition to enforce those already existent, rather than encourage the eternal amendment of the old and the enactment of new laws.
    When the death sentence is passed the condemned man is virtually dead to the world; there are no visits of sympathy and condolence, and no presentation of bouquets by morbid women. While his health and comfort are humanely regarded, he passes virtually beyond the pale of existence, and the sentence of the court is carried out with due respect for decency and order. It cannot be denied, however, that, except in the most aggravated and unmistakable cases, there is a growing reluctance to enforce the death penalty which the Judge still pronounces wearing his black cap; it is an inevitable reaction from the days of legal slaughter, when murder and sheep-stealing were punished by a common penalty.
    At the same time, with all its dignity and its almost universal justice, one occasionally perceives in the lower courts - the justice courts largely - that peculiar incon-[-67-]sistent freedom and familiarity which seem to pervade all English institutions, social, civil and religious. It may be the remnant of strange, half-sentimental custom, vested in tradition, whose origin has been well-nigh forgotten, but which furnishes tenable ground for surviving exceptions to ordinary rules.
    The most singular illustration of this is the amount of controversy which is permitted between the prisoner in the dock and the counsel and even the judge upon the bench.
    English court rooms are very small, and tickets of admission are necessary for the more important trials, so that, without being required to attend in person, the public has cognizance of all that is said and done by the full publication of the proceedings in detail. The Judge's witticisms, with laughter and "hear, hear" in parenthesis, the sharp retorts of the prisoner, the caustic comments of the learned counsel, are all printed, and in this land where rigid formality is the rule, a far greater degree of personality is permitted than is common in the United States. The practice does not prevail in the higher as in the lower courts. The following colloquy between a coroner and a juror which appeared in one of the London newspapers illustrates the unrestrained free speech of the lower classes:
    At the Stepney Temple a juror complained to Mr. W. E. B-, the East London coroner, a man of considerable authority, on being summoned twice in two years to serve on a jury. "I have lost a sovereign by coming here today," he complained.
    THE CORONER.-What are you?
    THE JUROR.-I am a ship's rat-catcher. I ought to have been at the docks this morning to get my account signed, and now I shall have to wait eight months for my money. The ship sailed at ten o'clock.
    [-68-] THE CORONER.-Why did you not go before you came here?
    THE JUROR.-How could I get back here by a quarter to eleven from the Royal Albert Docks? Gentlemen won't get up for me at six o'clock in the morning.
    THE CORONER.-I often get up at six o'clock.
    THE JUROR.-Superintendents of ships don't get up at six o'clock, and I don't believe you do.
    THE CORONER (sarcastically)..-Thank you! I have already held four inquests before coming here.
    THE JUROR.-Yes, and you get paid for it!
    THE CORONER.-Yes; by salary.
    THE JUROR.-I lose my salary by coming here, it is very hard that my children should go without a Sunday dinner on that account.
    THE CORONER.-I admit it is very hard.
    THE JUROR.-Sympathy without help is like pudding without fat.
    THE CORONER.-I have already told you that the county council for each county is responsible for the payment of jurors, and the London county council have refused to pay.
    THE JUROR.-I hope I shall never come here again. If I am sent for I shall not come.
    THE CORONER.-Wait until that time arrives.
    The dialogue closed by the rat-catcher, apparently mollified, asking the coroner if he had any rats at his house "that wanted catching."
    The inquiry was answered in the negative with a frank comment made by the coroner on the rat-catcher's occupation.
   The changed position of the woman defendant or plaintiff in the English courts is one of the most remarkable evidences of the gradual growth of justice. Formerly, the woman whose name for any cause came before the public [-69-] in a legal proceeding, either through her fault or her misfortune, no matter what her wrongs may have been, or how just her claims for reparation, was already half condemned by public opinion; to appear in the courts was "indelicate" and "unfeminine" - that shibboleth of ignorant and cruel conservatism which once forced her to suffer in silence rather than seek either defense or redress. That day has passed, and the English courts within the last decade furnish evidence of reform that cannot be disputed. Once a man might beat his wife with "a stick no thicker than his thumb," and he was justified by the law since the wife was virtually his chattel which self-interest, it was argued, forbade that he should maim or render useless to him. To-day, if he beat her at all, the chances are that he will receive a wholesome term of imprisonment with still more salutary hard labor. A heart-rending case was brought to public notice where an effort had been made to induce a wretched charwoman to send her children to the workhouse. By the hardest and most incessant toil the utmost that she could earn was three shillings (75 cents) a week. When she went out to work she was forced to lock the children in the one crowded room which was their home; she could not afford to pay anyone to look after them, and one day in her absence, the youngest was burned to death. After the harrowing circumstances had been narrated by the witnesses, the jury gave her a considerable sum, other funds were subscribed, more lucrative employment was found for her, and the poor creature was enabled to keep her family together.
    Twenty years ago very little consideration would have been shown the natural and praiseworthy maternal instinct; the children would have been sent to the workhouse by the board of guardians who would have considered themselves competent to act with superior wisdom in the matter, and the mother would have been dismissed [-70-] as a person of deficient intelligence to whose prejudices no importance could possibly be attached.
    One of the most notable trials which had been held for many years in which a woman was the plaintiff, occurred in March, 1887, and damages were awarded in the extraordinary sum of ?12,000. To make it the more remarkable the defendant was a wealthy and distinguished West End physician, with a large practice amongst the English gentry and nobility. In his professional capacity he had made the gravest charge against the character of a woman who had been his patient and to whom he was connected by marriage. The physician took his wife into his confidence, upon the pretext that he wished her to decide for herself whether their acquaintance with the accused woman should continue, and her visits to their house be permitted. The husband was absent and his wife, for some private reason refused to disclose his whereabouts, even to insure the vindication of her own reputation. He had contributed nothing to the support of his family who had been dependent upon a wealthy brother of the physician. He had made them an allowance of ?400 per annum, the mother being in ill health and unable to work for herself or her children. When the accusations of the physician reached the ears of the brother the allowance was stopped immediately, and the woman and her family were plunged into the deepest poverty and distress - a fact which had weight with the judge and jury. The physician retained the ablest counsel in England, and the case was argued stubbornly and at great length on both sides. But neither the high social position nor the great influence of the defendant, both in professional and in exclusive fashionable circles, could save him. The only fear expressed at the time was that in the excess of its zeal, the jury might have gone too far, and have awarded excessive damages, giving grounds for an appeal. Justice [-71-] however, was done, and the plaintiff received the reparation she sought.
    The London press in its comment on the verdict pointed out that, through the very nature of his office, the physician was admitted into the household upon terms of peculiar intimacy; its secrets became known to him, and he held in his hand the peace and happiness of hundreds innocent of offences committed by those to whom they were related or connected, and it was necessary to punish betrayal of professional confidence with extreme severity. It is true, of course, that the woman whom the court endeavored to compensate for the loss and pain and humiliation she had been made to suffer would remain under a stigma for the remainder of her life, however innocent, no matter what the court decided. But it was an immense advance to have been made within half a century that the simple justice of her cause, the wrong that she had suffered, weighed in the balance against wealth, position and professional influence, should have appealed to a jury with irresistible force.

source: Mary H. Krout, A Looker-On in London, 1899>