HOBS: Debt and Dickens and the besmirching of the Lord Eldon
The early nineteenth century Court of Chancery was bogged down with delay, expense and endless litigation, according to Mr Charles Dickens. A perusal of Dickens' work shows that he was almost constantly aware of the spectre of debt and the problems associated with the Court of Chancery. Here are some examples from his writings:
- "I have welcomed many gentlemen to these walls" (William Dorrit, father of the Marshalsea - Little Dorrit).
- "Will he pay all his debts before he leaves here?It seems to me hard that he should pay in life and money both" (Little Dorrit).
- "No, no, my dear, mine. You shall have the books" (Fagan - Oliver Twist).
- "At last all is gone, nothing is left but scattered leaves of catalogues." (Dombey & Son).
- "Something may come of this. I hope it mayn't be human grave." (Simon Tappertit in Barnaby Rudge).
In relation to the Lord Eldon's supposed dilatoriness we can look to one of the great scholars of English legal history for a defence of this long serving Lord Chancellor (1801-1806, 1807-1827) who one commentator has called, "one of the greatest equity lawyers." (Dr Martin in Hanbury & Martin at page 14). In his History of English Law (volume one of twelve at page 468), Professor Sir William Holdsworth QC, sometime Vinerian Professor of English Law at the University of Oxford, observed in relation to the Lord Eldon:
"He had a thorough grasp of existing rules and principles; but he looked as anxiously into all the facts and circumstances of each case...as if there were no such rules and as if, therefore, he was under the necessity of determining each case as one of first impression."
This thoroughness of approach may have therefore accounted for the legendary delays in Chancery, that, "most pestilent of hoary sinners." (Dickens in Bleak House). Who was right about Eldon? Dickens or Sir William? For a discussion of whether or not the Lord Eldon was Dickens' model for a caricature of a ponderous judge, see here. In the interim Dr Martin's view (ibid) of the Lord Eldon might be borne in mind. The learned commentator notes that, "his decisions were thorough, painstaking, learned and clear...The judgments were masterly." It is also worth noting that in the Lord Eldon's time he sat with only one other brother judge in the Court of Chancery, namely, the Master of the Rolls.
The current Chancery Division of the High Court of Judicature has approximately twenty judges and six Chancery Masters as well as the Bankruptcy Registrars. In addition to the Chancery Division in the Strand (the Lord Eldon worked from Lincoln's Inn Old Hall) there are now eight provincial High Court centres which have a Chancery jurisdiction. As Cam notes, we must however be careful not to judge law and history backwards. Case loads, litigation type and complexity would have been much different in the Lord Eldon's day. Direct parallels are impossible to make. That his court suffered delays is undoubted. Under staffing may however have been a principal driver of this delay, as opposed to some defect in the presiding judge.
We should not however discount Dickens' view of English legal history entirely. Indeed, Professor Sir William Holdsworth QC wrote a book about Dickens' contribution to the subject. See: Holdsworth, WS. Charles Dickens as a Legal Historian. Yale University Press, 1928. Dickens was not the Lord Eldon's only detractor. As his ODNB biographer notes, "Eldon's opponents also accused him of resisting reform for financial reasons: it was said that he wanted to keep the bankruptcy jurisdiction united to chancery on account of the high fees he earned from commissions in bankruptcy."
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