Author: Gregory J Durston

Waterside Press

London is controlled by gangs; the press are carrying stories about problems caused by the idle unemployed. There are gripes about immigration, complaints about solicitors using technicalities to secure acquittals, concerns at the cost of going to court. Prisons are expensive and do not reduce reoffending. The rights of victims are largely ignored.

This is not a description of now, but the London of the 18th century.

I am not sure if it was a good time to be a lawyer, although there were lots of them. There was one attorney to every 383 inhabitants, plus plenty of unqualified advisers. Many of these had been bailiffs or litigants and acquired some knowledge of law through increasingly popular and plentiful self-help manuals. Even qualified lawyers were largely unregulated. Attorneys were able to tout for business as prosecutors or defenders. Parish constables were warned in 1754 about ‘low solicitors, who are ever watching (criticising) their (constables’) conduct and ever preying on their ignorance or rashness’.

I was not expecting to have much regard for the ways of justice 300 years ago. Capital punishment was mandatory for many crimes. The defendant had few rights. Despite that, the conviction rate was only 62% at Old Bailey for most of the 18th century. Many prosecutions did not get far, as cases were settled. This was the era of mainly private individuals prosecuting. Many escaped conviction because of reluctance of victims to go through expense of proceedings, the highly technical nature of procedure and juries’ sympathy for the defendant. They often just wanted their goods back and would drop the charge.

This is a very-well-researched and readable book. It is not cheap, but is a bit of a romp. Are things better in the 21st century? The jury is still out.

David Pickup is a partner at Aylesbury-based Pickup & Scott