'The Law Is An Ass': Charles Dickens And The Law

Parikshit Goyal

4 Jun 2020 4:00 AM GMT

  • The Law Is An Ass: Charles Dickens And The Law

    Charles Dickens passed away on 9th of June, 1870. His 150th death anniversary is unlikely to pass without reminiscing, as the sheer quality of his work has stood the test of time. Personally, I have been a huge fan of his works, having read some of his prominent works during childhood. The lockdown period gave me an opportunity to re - read his novels, and being a practising lawyer, I...

    Charles Dickens passed away on 9th of June, 1870. His 150th death anniversary is unlikely to pass without reminiscing, as the sheer quality of his work has stood the test of time. Personally, I have been a huge fan of his works, having read some of his prominent works during childhood. The lockdown period gave me an opportunity to re - read his novels, and being a practising lawyer, I was thrilled to observe that his novels are teeming with legal life. From David Copperfield to The Tale of Two Cities, his novels are richly populated with trials, lawsuits, judges, magistrates, law offices and lawyers. Through this article, I shall explore Dickens' view of the law as evident from his novels, his disregard for legal technicalities, depiction of different lawyers and his emphasis on futilities of the justice system and its moral barrenness. However, it was not that he regarded only the law and lawyers as a deep flaw. Rather, Dickens considered virtually all societal institutions as devoid of decency and incapable of advancing morality.

    In most of his novels, a trial or a lawyer is one of the central themes. From a young age, Dickens observed courts, trials, law offices and lawyers from very close quarters. His father was imprisoned due to inability to pay his debts. A young Dickens would often visit him in prison. At the age of 15, Dickens became a law clerk at the firm Ellis and Blackmore, attorneys of Gray's Inn. He saw the seamy side of law there and regularly reported variety of cases, many of which became the plot themes of his famous novels. He himself never joined the bar, choosing instead a living as a writer. Though nine of the thirteen novels that Dickens wrote are centered around the world of law, I shall discuss Dickens' treatment of law and lawyers in David Copperfield, Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations and Oliver Twist.

    David Copperfield

    This novel is considered to be the most autobiographical of Dickens' novels. It contains a well - drawn picture of lawyers, though the depiction is caricaturish and greedy. Main protagonist David joins the law firm of Spenlow and Jorkins to become an attorney or "proctor" at the Doctors' Commons, a Victorian era court in England, which his friend describes as "a little out of the way place, where they administer what is called ecclesiastical law, and play all kinds of tricks with obsolete old monster acts of Parliament...". Spenlow, the partner, boasts of the court as one which allows lawyers to engage in protracted litigation. He advises David that the best sort of business is a case of a disputed Will involving significant estate.

    Another character in the novel -Uriah Heep - described cartoonishly as "a red - haired, cadaverous faced youth, with long, clammy, fish like hands", starts as a law clerk and eventually becomes a lawyer. He plots to usurp the partner Mr. Wickfield and takes over his law practice by falsifying documents and embezzling funds.

    Through this novel, Dickens conveys his contemptuous view of the law and lawyers. Spenlow is greedy and is proud of it. Heep conceals his villainy and charades as a modest lawyer. The law, according to Dickens, allows morally corrupt individuals to further their cause. However, Dickens, like his famous character - the ever optimistic Mr. Micawber, does not see lawyers as all evil. For every Heep, Dickens also has a Tommy Traddles, who rises from poverty, studies hard to become a lawyer and later helps Mr. Micawber in recovering his money.

    Bleak House

    Bleak House is perhaps Dickens' most legal novel. This novel perhaps shows the ill - effects of a long never - ending lawsuit on a litigant. The rough and tumble of the Chancery court is described in full flow. Dickens describes Chancery court as surrounded by a dense fog, which is a metaphor for the opaqueness and inaccessibility of the English justice institutions. The novel is woven around the case of Jarndyce vs Jarndyce, and the lawyers and litigants involved in it. In his own words, "This scarecrow of a suit has, in course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means. Innumerable children have been born into the cause; innumerable young people have died out of it…Jarndyce and Jarndyce still drags its dreary lengths before the Court, perennially hopeless."

    The dispute at hand was regarding the administration of trusts made under the Will by one Mr. Jarndyce. Numerous lawyers are pitted against each other in the long drawn out legal saga. Finally, even when the case seems to end upon discovery of a new will, the validity of the new will becomes null because the litigants learn that the estate in dispute has been entirely eaten up in costs. By the end of it, prominent litigants have either died or committed suicide.

    Jarndyce case represents Dickens' most vicious attack on lawyers and legal system. He remarks, "The one great principle of the English law is to make business for itself." He blames the court's inability to arrive at any decision. However, Dickens does not hold lawyers at fault entirely for law's shortcomings. He observes that sometimes, cases drag on due to a client's unwillingness to settle. Towards the end, some litigants continue to wage legal battles and "the quarrel goes on to the satisfaction of both". In this novel also, he propounds the moral dilemmas through the workings and constraints of the Victorian legal system. Chancery court was ultimately abolished by the Judicature Acts of 1875.

    Even today, as a lawyer practising on the civil side, one comes across a case like Jarndyce where the families are engaged in a never ending litigation, a new will or document mysteriously appears, litigants die during the pendency, some get consumed by the whole process and legal heirs continue to litigate, with no conclusion in sight.

    In 2007, the Supreme Court of India, through Justices Mathur and Katju, pronounced a judgement in the matter 'Rajindera Singh (Dead) Through LRs vs Prem Mai And Ors', where they quoted from Bleak House, "...9. Before parting with this case we would like to express our anguish at the delay in disposal of cases in our law courts. The present case is a typical illustration. A suit filed in 1957 has rolled on for half a century. It reminds one of the case Jarndyce v Jarndyce in Charles Dickens' novel 'Bleak House' which had rolled on for decades, consuming litigants and lawyers alike."

    A Tale of Two Cities

    Set in the backdrop of the French Revolution, the novel involves two trials and one of the main protagonists is a lawyer named Sydney Carton. In the beginning, Stryver and his associate Sydney Carton are defending Charles Darnay in a trial for treason against the King. An interesting cross - examination takes place, during which Carton points to an uncanny resemblance between himself and accused Darnay, thereby impeaching the witness's testimony. Carton is not the most committed of associates or a hard working lawyer. He seems sad, aimless and often finds solace in alcohol.

    Dickens uses law and prisons as a recurring subject in this novel as well. Cities of London and Paris are symbolically depicted as prisoners of an emerging industrial order, rife with lawlessness, bloodshed and ultimately revolution. After the outbreak of French revolution, Darnay is again tried by the Reign of Terror. Just because he is a bourgeoisie aristocrat, the revolutionary court sentences him to death at the guillotine. Once again, Carton, acting out of his desire to give purpose to his life, saves Darnay. He uses his resemblance to Darnay and goes to the guillotine in latter's place, thereby sacrificing himself.

    Dickens powerfully shows the gap between morality and law. Through Carton, he epitomizes the futility of legal system. Carton does not possess any qualities which a good lawyer should have but does the ultimate 'moral' act possible - sacrificing himself to get justice for innocent Darney.

    In January, 2020 a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court was hearing petitions challenging internet restrictions in Kashmir. Interestingly, Justice Ramana started his judgement with the opening lines from this novel and wrote, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…Although cherished in our heart as a 'Paradise on Earth', the history of this beautiful land is etched with violence and militancy. While the mountains of Himalayas spell tranquility, yet blood is shed every day."

    Great Expectations

    In this novel also, Dickens continues to explore law and morality. One of the central characters is Mr. Jaggers, who is a tough, successful criminal lawyer. In the novel, someone is relating a newspaper account of a murder trial to him and Pip, the novel's main hero. During the discussion, Jaggers does not wish to presume the guilt of the accused. He angrily asks, "Do you know, or not do you know, that the law of England supposes every man to be innocent, until he is proved - proved - to be guilty?" He further asks, "Do you know that none of these witnesses have yet been cross - examined?". Jaggers is projected as a lawyer who is a careerist, focussed, cold, aloof and secretive.

    In the story, a character named Magwitch is convicted of a crime and deported to Australia. There he becomes a successful sheep farmer and a rich entrepreneur. To repay Pip's kindness as a child, he used to send money to Pip through Jaggers. After many years, he returns to England and reveals himself to be the secret benefactor of Pip. However, upon return, Magwitch is caught again and gets gravely injured. After a new trial, he is sentenced to death.

    Once again, Dickens laments the futility of justice system. On one hand, Magwitch, after being deported, become a successful businessman and is reformed. He is inherently a good man and displays acts of kindness and benevolence towards Pip. On the other hand, he is tried again for returning and is sentenced to death while being injured and having no chances of surviving.

    Dickens ultimately stresses that the law dehumanises. In his eyes, law does not accommodate morality and virtue, rather it hampers them.

    Oliver Twist

    Though this novel was written after Dickens' first work The Pickwick Papers, I shall discuss it in the end. It is a touching story about an orphan and bunch of other children forced into pick pocketing by a criminal named Fagin. Here again, Dickens derides the justification of a legal system in which juveniles, like Oliver, are made to appear in the courtroom before the magistrate.

    Dickens vehemently criticises the New Poor Law of England, under which an orphan like Oliver is raised in a workhouse and is given away when he famously dares to ask for another bowl of soup. However, the greatest moment comes when Mr. Bumble is charged with a theft, which apparently was committed by Mrs. Bumble, his wife. Mr. Brownlowe remarks, "..the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction." "If the law supposes that," said Mr. Bumble, "the law is a ass - a idiot."

    Oliver Twist is not a novel full of lawyers, legal disputes and trials, like the ones discussed above, though the juvenile Artful Dodger is tried for petty theft and deported. The ringleader Fagin is also later tried and sentenced to death. The novel is primarily a critique of the social inequalities in industrial England and the inadequacies of reform laws. Dickens reserved his sharpest criticisms of law and caricatures of lawyers for his later works.


    It is evident that Dickens was not too interested in the technicalities of law. It is his view of the role of law in the society which is more important. Rather than calling for specific legal reforms, he emphasizes on the dichotomy between law and morality. Dickens appeals to the human qualities and believed that true justice cannot be achieved by law or lawyers, but through good deeds by good people. His novels are of a time when justice was available only for a few and majority simply could not afford lawyers and right to fair trial. He rejects the over - emphasis on law to be the vehicle of social change, morality and justice. Perhaps, he believed that the law is an ass which bears the burden of the society but one that cannot be over - burdened with the weight of morality.

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    Anuradha Bhasin v Union of India https://indiankanoon.org/doc/82461587/

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