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The Bar and the Old Bailey, 1750-1850.

The Bar and the Old Bailey, 1750-1850. By Allyson N. May (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003. xii plus 361 pp.).

Inspired by debates over the role played by the criminal law in early modern and modern English social relations, historians over the last thirty years have demonstrated a strong interest in the development of criminal procedure and the institutions of judicial administration. There is a considerable historical literature that explores changes in the process of prosecuting both felonies and misdemeanors in England. Historians have examined how the criminal trial was experienced by individuals of different social backgrounds and gender, how discretion was exercised at various stages of the trial by a range of participants, and how this evolved over time. John Langbein, John Beattie, David Cairns, and others have drawn attention to a set of actors that became increasingly important to this process during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the upper branch of the legal profession. These scholars have explored how "the coming of the lawyers" changed criminal procedure and the prosecution of crime in England. Allyson May's The Bar and the Old Bailey, 1750-1850, is among the most thoroughly-researched explorations of the relationship between the upper branch of the legal profession and reforms in the criminal trial to date. May provides an in-depth examination of the emergence of a criminal bar practicing at the Old Bailey in London, emphasizing its role in, and reaction to, the transformation of the felony trial from a direct confrontation between the victim and accused into a contest between professional advocates. May challenges the Whigish notion that increasingly "rights-oriented" barristers exerted pressure to obtain a larger place in the felony hearings, finding that, in fact, the overwhelming majority of the London bar opposed the expansion of its role that came with the 1836 Prisoners' Counsel Act.

In the eighteenth century, and indeed, for all of the period under consideration in May's book, the overwhelming majority of felony trials at the Old Bailey took place without legal counsel engaged on either side. The responsibility prosecuting crimes lay largely with the victims/accusers. Likewise, the accused was expected to answer the charges personally and conduct his or her own defense. Even in the unlikely event that a defendant could afford legal counsel, it was of limited utility, as lawyers were not permitted to speak to the facts of the case and could only argue points of law. Gradually, larger institutions prosecuting more complex crimes, such as forgery, engaged counsel to conduct their cases. Likewise, anxieties about rising crime also led some individual prosecutors to more readily engage counsel, as did a system of rewards for the prosecution of crimes. This created a perceived imbalance in the trial, and fears about the possibility of malicious or false prosecutions stimulated by the reward system caused the Bench to permit defense counsel to cross examine witnesses, but not address the jury. May's biographical exploration of the careers of the men who practiced at the Old Bailey reveals that they were not civil libertarians clamoring for a greater role in the criminal trial. Rather, the transformations that expanded the duties of counsel were of an ad hoc, piecemeal, and practical nature. Still, they provided the thin end of the wedge for the adversarial trial.

This was, however, a very thin edge indeed, as the appearance of counsel in felony trials at the Old Bailey remained quite rare. The majority of the practice at the Old Bailey was dominated by a small number of highly prominent barristers, such as John Silvester, William Garrow, and Charles Philips. Very few Old Bailey barristers managed to make a name for themselves at the Common Law Courts in Westminster Hall, and a small number were eventually promoted to the Bench at Old Bailey, though May finds that these individuals did little to enhance the reputation of the London bar. May demonstrates that for more junior members of the Bar, constructing a career out of limited demand for their services could be quite a challenge and depend heavily upon local connections. Most barristers had to piece together a living through appearances at Quarter Sessions, utilize their London connections to establish a practice in the variety of metropolitan customary courts, or win positions as bankruptcy commissioners.

The 1836 Prisoners' Counsel Act was an important landmark in the progression of the criminal trial, as it gave the accused access to all depositions and a copy of the indictment sworn against them, recognized the defendant's right to have legal counsel, and perhaps most importantly, permitted that counsel to address the jury on behalf of his client. One might imagine that the judicial bench and the London bar were favorable to such reforms, but May's research demonstrates quite the opposite. On a practical level, members of the bench and bar recognized that allowing defense counsel to make speeches would greatly lengthen trials without increasing fees from poor clients, but more importantly, they argued that turning the felony trial into a contest between professional advocates would act as an impediment to discovering "the truth." Because defense counsel had not been permitted to address the jury in trials, it had been understood that counsel for the prosecution would exercise restraint in their speeches. Under this new Act, many barristers feared restraint on both sides would disappear. The voices of the victim and the accused, thought to be essential to the determination of truth, would be drowned out by professional advocates pandering to the passions and prejudices of the jury. Many barristers argued that the act would not help defendants because it would make the abilities of the advocates the deciding factor in the trial, and the prosecution would usually be able to afford better counsel. May demonstrates that the 1836 Prisoners' Counsel Act was not the result of pressure from the legal profession, but in fact, became law in spite of forceful opposition from a majority of its members.

Once the Prisoners' Counsel Act became law the bar was forced to address difficult issues related to the obligations of advocates to their clients. Prominent among these was the question of whether counsel could mount a full defense on behalf of a client known to be guilty. This issue received considerable public attention in 1840, after the murder trial of Francois Courvoisier in which he confessed to his counsel part way through the trial. His barrister completed the trial, and out of the public controversy surrounding these events, the profession gradually articulated a theory of advocacy that emphasized a distinction between "truth" and "justice." A barrister representing a guilty client had an obligation to ensure "justice" by preventing the defendant from being convicted upon insufficient evidence or improper procedure. Although by 1850, the felony trial had not yet become a full blown adversarial contest it was well on its way to becoming one.

One of the strength of May's work is that it is rooted in meticulous research into the diverse working lives of the individuals who made up the London bar, giving the reader a sense of the day to day practice at the Old Bailey and other Metropolitan courts. The author provides a useful appendix on source material related to the individuals who practiced at the Old Bailey between 1783 and 1850. May also provides considerable insight into how these practitioners were perceived by the public. May's in-depth work gives a more accurate picture of the opinions of both prominent and junior barristers in London to the transformations in criminal procedure occurring in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. May has made a significant contribution to our understanding of the transformation of both the legal profession and the felony trial in England.

Christopher Frank

University of Manitoba
COPYRIGHT 2005 Journal of Social History
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Author:Frank, Christopher
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2005
Words:1291
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