Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Garrow's Law (or the confession of an ex-lecturer)

A confession is due. Not a confession relating to any recent allegations of a legal nature but one of utilising one's time usefully.

Many of you may have presumed that the writer of this blog is a profligate consumer of philosophical and historical tracts and partial to endless volumes of bedtime caselaw. There is a whisker of truth in this, the sort of whisker you might find floating on the delicately sculpted ivory of a Guinness pulled freshly at The Face is Altered on Kilburn High Road.

That vile contraption

Back to the confession. This writer is a television addict. It is simply irresistible. More so with a roaring log fire acting as sentry over a pair of toasted anti-feet frayers, guarding against the scythe-like talons of a grasping, crystalline pre-winter-winter. What isn't addictive is the cacophonous corporate coprophagia that blitzkrieg-like is the hallmark 'independent' television programming. Thus nightly, almost instinctively, one of the BBC channels is selected, very nearly depriving the uninvited potion-peddlars a single nanosecond to commit their aural sensory assault. Concomitantly, if commercial channels are selected, the malignancy of electronic hawking can be mitigated to an almost bearable degree with the liberal application of the electric cordless channel-changer.

Garrow's Law

With luck 'Strictly' - as it's affectionately deferred to by those who speak of it with a gravity usually reserved for royal funerals or paedophile rings (do they like their fungi-based counterparts grow on lawns in early Autumn) - failed to plaster itself all over the LCD screen. This programme has a particular mucousity and a fatality that will like a glue-sniffers favourite bag and the sole of a child's shoe, attach itself shit-like to that thing known as the 'national psyche'. Yet against all these odds, a "televisual feast" of the most Cribbenesque order manifested itself. The programme referred to m'lud is one Garrow's Law.

There is was a time when only the rich could afford legal counsel... 
William Garrow - responsible for the adversarial system and the phrase "innocent until proven guilty"... except for libel which is the other way round

Now in general, the only law that this writer has recourse to is that of a chap called Murphy. But like many raised on a lunchtime diet of Crown Court in the 1970s, is fairly partial to programmes that focus on the courtroom. For the general viewer, whose lifetime experience of the law is confined to paying a parking fine on the last possible day prior to having to cough up the full sum, they can catch a glimpse of the idealised and screen-friendly, be-wigged doer of all things customary and upholder of civil society and ultimately capitalist power relations. In one hour or so the legal machinery, with all its intricacies and triumphs, is laid bare for all to see. In reality the machinery is full of flaws and can be extraordinarily slow and of course spankingly expensive.

Corruption galore!

Of  late and of necessity, this writer has become partial to a bit of the more serious stuff; the cocaine of courtroom drama - Kavanagh QC. It's a John Thaw thing. Garrow's Law is a little different. This particular episode pressed all the right buttons: a protest, profligacy, a Charity, the change of a Charter, the authorship and distribution of alleged libels, special favours and disbursements for placemen, allegations of criminal libel made to cover gross abuses of power and frauds, the misspending of charitable monies, the lining of pockets of favoured Directors and Governors... it was quite a substantive list and it was dizzying. The series pits a young Johnny-come-lately 18th century barrister, with levelling ideals emblazoned on his robes, against a system weighted in the favour of the powers-that-be: a corrupt and nepotistic establishment and institutions. Say no more.

The Sweeny - had lots of boozing and gratuitous
violence... it also had it's bad points
How a complaint brought down opprobrium from above

For those of you who are already bored, it's worth persevering as Sunday's broadcast was interesting on several levels. Firstly, it highlighted the manner in which the establishment and leading establishment figures sought to connive and machinate in order to destroy Garrow. They despised him as both an outsider (due to his heritage) and because he threatened the status quo; a constant thorn in the side of 'business as usual'. Moreover, each episode is based on an historical case. Sunday night's episode centred on the real-life trial of one Captain Thomas Baillie who was the Lieutenant Governor of the Royal Hospital of Greenwich a retirement home for former sailors. The episode began with a demonstration by former seamen against the food and conditions in the home that was run as a charity. The trial centred on an allegation of libel against Baillie who had represented the seamen's grievances in their appalling condition. Now always one for a bit of reading, this writer decided to undertake a little investigative work and it would appear that the case of Captain Baillie, attributed to Garrow, was in fact defended by four lawyers including a young and junior Thomas Erskine.

The Courts - a weapon of the wealthy and powerful

Thomas Baillie was indicted on the basis of a libel he was said to have committed against several high profile figures of the day and of a particular institution through the dissemination of a "book": in reality a list of complaints. The Hospital was run specifically for disabled seamen. According to its Charter, no Landmen could be admitted. Baillie's duty with others was to "watch over the internal economy of this sacred charity" in order to ensure that "the ample revenues appropriated from this generous nation to their support, are not perverted or misappropriated."(1)

The grey-haired gentleman who dresses to the left
A vile libellor?

What was this libel? Baillie ventured in the words of Erskine  "to attack abuses..." What was interesting in the program and with a little delving was that Erskine used the platform of the courtroom to draw in the Earl of Sandwich (First Lord of the Admiralty) and publicised the fact that the changing of the Charter helped "to serve the base and worthless purposes of corruption..." which "introduced his prostituted freeholders of Huntingdon into places destined for the honest freeholders of the seas.." a beautiful metaphor for the disfigured and loyal seamen. Erskine went  further:

"... that these men (among whom are the prosecutors) are not only Landmen, in defiance of the Charter, and wholly dependent on the Admiralty in their views and situations, but, to the reproach of all order and government, are suffered to act as Directors and Officers of Greenwich, while they themselves hold subordinate offices, the control of which is the object of that direction;- and inferring from thence (as a general proposition) that men in such situations cannot, as human nature is constituted, act with that freedom and singleness which their duty requires, he justly attributes to these causes the grievances which his gallant brethren actually suffer..."(2)

It is clear from records that Baillie sought not the removal of the Governors but remedy for the poor seamen and to save "Greenwich Hospital from ruin." Say no more.

Words - weapons of mass instruction

It was the production of the 'book' that drew the ire of the Governors of the Hospital. Baillie saw this as a means in framing the complaints of the men. Erskine points out how the Prosecutors had sought to isolate passages from the entirety of the book to prosecute their case:

"If the Defendant be guilty for any crime at all, it be in writing This Book:  and the conclusion of his guilt or innocence must consequently depend on the scope and design of it, the general truth of it, and the necessity for writing it; and this conclusion can no otherwise be drawn than by taking the WHOLE of it together. Your Lordships will not shut your eyes, as these prosecutors expect, to the design and general truth of the book, and go entirely upon insulated passages culled out, and set heads and points in their wretched affidavits, without context, or even making an attempt to unriddle or explain their sense, or bearing on the subject; for, my Lord, they have altogether omitted to traverse the scandalous facts themselves..."(3)

What became clear as the trial progressed was the scale by which associates of the Governors including traders known to them in Huntingdon, enriched themselves at the cost of those who had bodily spent themselves in service to their country. For example, wards within the Hospital reserved for the use of aged and disabled seamen were converted into apartment for Directors and Clerks of Clerks.

Vindictiveness and recriminations

For those wishing to give evidence as to the validity of the issues raised by Baillie, they were "deprived of their places", "exposed to beggary and ruin".(4) Some withdrew their signed affidavits for fear of repercussions refusing to appear in court and give evidence. Yet some braver souls spoke out and provided  testimony to back Baillie's assertions. The case also raised the issue that the Charter had been altered and allowed 'Landmen' to be catered for. When a group of seamen campaigned to have them removed, one Charles Smith who signed an affidavit for the Court, was with his family ejected from the Hospital into penury, his wife expiring at the Hospital gates.

Baillie was to win against the odds. However, the First Lord of the Admiralty and his supporters ensured that Baillie would never again work in the Royal Navy. Justice served!

Say no more.

For those of a stiffer constitution, it is worth reading the preamble from the original speeches of the Honourable Thomas Erskine reproduced below:


CAPTAIN THOMAS Baillie, one of the oldest Captains in the British navy, having, in consideration of his age and services, been appointed Lieutenant Governor of the Royal Hospital for Superannuated Seamen at Greenwich, saw (or thought he suw) great abuses in the administration of the charity; and prompted, as he said, by compassion for the seamen, as well as by a sense of public duty, had endeavoured by various means to effectuate a reform.
      In pursuance of this object, he had at various times presented petitions and remonstrances to the Council of the Hospital, the Directors, and the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, and he had at last recourse to a printed appeal, addressed to the General Governors of the Hospital. These Governors consisted of all the great Officers of State, Privy Counsellors, Judges, Flag-Officers, & c.c.
     Some of the alleged grievances in this publication were, that the health and comfort of the seamen in the Hospital were sacrificed to lucrative and corrupt contracts, under which the clothing, provisions, and all sorts of necessaries and stores were deficient ; that the contractors themselves presided in the very offices, appointed by the charter for the control of contracts, where, in the character of counsellors, they were enabled to disniss all complaints, and carry on with impunity their oivn system of fraud and peculation.
       But the chief subject of complaint (the public notice of which, as Captain Baillie alleged, drew down upon him the resentment of the Board of Admiralty) teas, that Landmen were admitted into the offices and places in the Hospital, designed exclusively for Seamen, by the spirit, if not by the letter of the institution. To these landmen Captain Baillie imputed all the abuses he complained of, and he more than insinuated by his different petitions, and by the publication in question, that tliey were introduced tothese offices for their election services to the Earl of , as freeholders of Huntingdonshire.
     He alleged further, that he had appealed from lime to time to the Council of the Hospital, and to the Directors, without effect; and that he had been equally unsuccessful with the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, during the presidency of the Earl of Sandwich ; that, in consequence of these failures, he resolved to attract the notice of the General Governors, and, as he thought them too numerous as a body, for a convenient examination in thefirst instance, and besides, had no means of assembling them, a statement of the facts through the medium of this Appeal, drawn up exclusively for their use, and distributed solely among the members of their body, appeared to him the most eligible mode of obtaining redress on the subject.
      In this composition, which teas written with great zeal and with some asperity, the names of the landmen, intruded into the offices for seamen, were enumerated; the contractors also were held forth and reprobated; and the First Lord of the Admiralty himself was not spared.
     On the circulation of the book becoming general, the Board of Admiralty suspended Captain Baillie from his office. And the different officers, contractors, & c. in the Hospital, who were animadverted upon, applied to the Court of King's Bench, in Trinity Term, 1778, and obtained a rule upon Captain Baillie to show cause in the Michaelmas Term following, why an information should not be exhibited against him for a libel. (5)

(1) The Speeches of Hon Thomas Erskine (Now Lord Erskine) When at the Bar on Subjects Connected with Liberty Of the Press and Against Constructive Treasons, collected by James Ridgeway, Vol I, London 1810, Publisher J Ridgeway pp 7-8
(2) Ibid pp8-9
(3) Pg16
(5) Available at Google books. Click here to access the online version.
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