Page images


watches; and he opposes aggression the moment it commences. Should any assume undue prerogatives, he straiglitway steps up to them and demands their authority for so doing. Transactions that seem in the remotest degree underhand awaken his suspicions, which are not to be laid so long as anything remains unexplained. If in any proposed arrangement there be a latent danger to the liberties of himself and others, he instantly discovers it and refuses his consent. He is alarmed by such a proposal as the disfranchisement of a constituency by the legislature; for it at once occurs to him that the measure thus levelled against one may be levelled against many. To call that responsible government under which a cabinet-minister can entangle the nation in a quarrel about some paltry territory before they know anything of it, he sees to be absurd. It needs no chain of reasoning to show him that the assumption, by a delegated assembly, of the power to lengthen its own existence from three years to seven, is an infraction of the representative principle; and no plausible professions of honourable intentions can check his opposition to the setting up of so dangerous a precedent. Still more excited is he when applied to for grants of public money, with the understanding that on a future occasion he shall be told how they have been spent. Flimsy excuses about “exigencies of the State," and the like, cannot entrap him into so glaring an act of self-stultification. Thus is he ever on the watch to stop encroachment. And when a community consists of men animated by the spirit thus exemplified, the continuance of liberal institutions is certain.


Our system of jurisprudence takes a very one-sided view of the reciprocal claims of State and subject. It is stringent enough in enforcing the claim of the State against the subject; but as to the correlative claim of the subject against the State it is comparatively careless. That it recognizes the title of the tax-payer to protection is true; but it is also true that it does this but partially. From certain infringements of rights, classed as criminal, it is ready to defend every complainant; but against others, not so classed, it leaves every one to defend himself. The most trifling injury, if inflicted in a specified manner, is cognizable by the magistrate, and redress may be obtained for nothing; but if otherwise inflicted, the injury, no matter how serious, must be passively borne, unless the sufferer has plenty of money and a sufficiency of daring. Let a man have his hat knocked over his eyes, and the law will zealously espouse his cause—will mulet his assailant in a tine and costs, and will do this without charge. But if, instead of having been bonneted he has been wrongfully imprisoned, he is politely referred to a solicitor, with the information that the offence committed against him is actionable: which means, that if rich he may play double or quits with Fate; and that if poor he must go without even this chance of compensation. Against picking of pockets, as ordinarily practised, the ruling power grants its lieges gratuitous protection; but pockets may be picked in various indirect ways, and it will idly look on unless costly means


taken to interest it. It will rush to the defence of one who has been deprived of a few turnips by a half-starved tramp; but as to the estate on which these turnips grew, that inay be stolen without risk, so long as the despoiled owner is left friendless and penniless.* Some complaints need only to be whispered, and the State forthwith plays the parts of constable, lawyer, judge, and gaoler; while to others it turns a deaf ear unless they are made through its bribed hangers-on. Now it is the injured man's champion; and now it throw's down its weapons and seats itself as umpire, while oppressor and oppressed run a tilt at each other.

That men should sit down as apathetically as they do under the present corrupt administration of justice, is not a little remarkable. That we, with all our jealousy of abuses, with all our opportunities of canvassing, blaming, and amending the acts of the legislature, with all our readiness to organize and agitate, with the Anti-Corn-Law, Slavery-Abolition, and Catholic-Emancipation victories fresh in remembrancethat we, the independent, self-ruling English, should daily behold the abominations of our judicial system, and yet do nothing to rectify them, is really quite incomprehensible. It is not as though the facts were disputed; all men are agreed upon them. The dangers of law are proverbial. The names of its officers are used as synonyms for trickery and greediness. The decisions of its courts are typical of chance. In all companies you hear but one opinion; and each person confirms it by a fresh illustration. Now you are informed of £300 having been expended in the recovery of forty shillings' worth of property; and again of a cause that was lost because an affirmation could not be received in place of an oath. A right-hand neighbour can tell you of a judge



* It is true that a plaintiff who can swear that he is not worth £5, may sue in formâ pauperis. But this privilege is almost a dead letter. Actions so instituted are usually found to fail, because those who conduct them, having to plead gratuitously, plead carelessly.

who allowed an indictment to be objected to, on the plea that the words,“ in the year of our Lord,” were not inserted before the date; and another to your left narrates how a thief lately tried for stealing a guinea-pig was acquitted, because a guinea-pig was shown to be a kind of rat, and a rat could not be property. At one moment the story is of a poor man whose rich enemy has deliberately ruined him by tempting him into litigation; and at the next it is of a child who has been kept in prison for six weeks, in default of sureties for her appearance as witness against one who had assaulted her.* This gentleman has been cheated out of half his property, but dared not attempt to recover it for fear of losing more; while his less prudent companion can parallel the experience of him who said that he had only twice been on the verge of ruin-once when he had lost a law-suit, and once wł he had gained one. On all sides you are told of trickery and oppression, and revenge, committed in the name of justice; of wrongs endured for want of money wherewith to purchase redress; of rights unclaimed because contention with the powerful usurper was useless; of chancery-suits that outlasted the lives of the suitors; of fortunes swallowed up in settling a title; of estates lost by an informality. And then comes a catalogue of victims of those who had trusted and been deceived; gray-headed men whose hardly-earned savings went to fatten the attorney; thread bare and hollowcheeked insolvents who lost all in the attempt to get their due; some who had been reduced to subsist on the charity of friends; others who had died the death of a pauper; with not a few whose anxieties had produced insanity, or who in their desperation had committed suicide. Yet, while all echo one another's exclamations of disgust, these iniquities continue unchecked !

There are not wanting, however, men who defend this state of things—who actually argue that government should perform but imperfectly what they allow to be its special function. While, on the one hand, they admit that administration of justice is the vital necessity of civilized life, they maintain, on the other, that justice may be administered too well !

* The case occurred at Winchester in July, 1849.

“For," say they, “were law cheap, all men would avail themselves of it. Did there exist no difficulty in obtaining justice, justice would be demanded in every case of violated rights. Ten times as many appeals would be made to the authorities as now.

Men would rush into legal proceedings on the slightest provocation; and litigation would be so enormously increased as to make the remedy worse than the disease.”

Such is the argument: an argument involving either a gross absurdity or an unwarrantable assumption. For observe, when this great multiplication of law-proceedings under a gratuitous administration of justice, is urged as a reason why things should remain as they are, it is implied that the evils attendant upon the rectification of all wrongs, would be greater than are the evils attendant upon submission to those wrongs. Either the great majority of civil aggressions must be borne in silence as now, or must be adjudicated upon as then; and the allegation is that the first alternative is preferable. But if ten thousand litigations are worse than ten thousand injustices, then one litigation is worse than one injustice. Which means that, as a general principle, an appeal to the law for protection is a greater evil than the trespass complained of. Which means that it would be better to have no administration of justice at all! If, for the sake of escaping this absurdity, it be assumed that, as things now are, all great wrongs are rectified, -that the costliness of law prevents insignificant ones only from being brought into court, and that consequently the above inference cannot be drawn; then, either denial is given to the obvious fact that, by the poverty they inflict, many of the greatest wrongs incapacitate their victims from obtaining redress, and to the obvious fact that the civil injuries suffered

« PreviousContinue »