« PreviousContinue »
Law Magazine and Law Review:
QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF JURISPRUDENCE.
ART. I.-BARON BRAMWELL, THE PRESS, AND
HILE some people so cultivate the art of saying offensive things that they bring it to the point of highest perfection, others possess naturally the gift of uttering falsehood with ready facility. A few combine these powers, and are thus enabled to exercise the quality of unveracity with a successful impudence, choosing their subjects with considerable judgment. Such adepts occasionally select for calumnious comment a public man, whose office and character, while they entitle him to respect and admiration, place him in a position which prohibits him from exposing misrepresentations, or replying to vituperation. A disreputable personal attack, of the kind we are referring to, which should embody a fair share of untruth, and appeal to the meaner jealousies of men, could not be better launched than against one who holds high judicial office, and has been known for some thirty years as one of the ablest lawyers in Westminster Hall. Other topics no doubt might, and occasionally are made, to serve in the dull season when Parliament is not sitting; for "any thing will do, provided it will fix the attention, and call forth the
VOL. VIII. NO. XV.
unthinking assent of a mob, or will carry away the equally irrational sympathies of a cultivated audience."1 Recently, however, it has been deemed preferable to direct frequent attacks against a very distinguished judge-we refer, of course, to Baron Bramwell-the Times newspaper taking the lead, and the smaller fry echoing in feebler slander its more powerful indecencies. The latent causes of this conduct need not be inquired into. The learned judge referred to is, as every practising lawyer knows, a remarkably independent and outspoken man. There is no one who, being addicted to humbug, and having to deal with his lordship, but hates him very cordially, and with very good reason. A man less honest and indifferent to paltry and vulgar applause than Baron Bramwell, would probably be more reticent on various occasions than he is; and would, doubtless, receive more of the commonplace and worthless commendation which is vouchsafed in reports and notices of proceedings in public court.
An illustration of the flagrant mode in which a newspaper has chosen to discuss the conduct of this learned judge, as well as that of the bar, has very recently been afforded; and we beg to call the attention of our readers thereto, not for the purpose of defending the judge, for that is totally superfluous in a periodical addressed especially to the legal public, but rather to expose the mischief arising from the press indulging in gross personalities founded on culpable misrepresentation of facts.
A reporter "of thirty years' standing," who provides the Times newspaper with the news of the Western Circuit, during the late assizes, informed the public that certain counsel had left Bristol to attend a commission in lunacy, carrying with them to another town their briefs; and thus leaving their clients in the lurch when their causes were called on. This statement was, by one of the leaders of the circuit, shown to be utterly false; and the reason of the inconvenience occasioned by the accidental absence of counsel was explained in court the next day to the learned judge. Baron Bramwell observed, in reply, that it was hardly necessary to take the trouble to con
1 Times' Leading Article, Sept. 7, 1859.
tradict the untruths and absurd reflections indulged in by the newspapers, for such "rubbish" would not be regarded. He added, moreover, that such reports would occasionally be made, for the cause which, we apprehend, is daily proved to be in operation, viz., that "so long as there are people who take a pleasure in reading scandal, some will be duly produced for their perusal." These observations had a twofold consequence: the one was, that the "reporter" shuffled out of his error on the plea often adopted by a detected schoolboy, that it was the fault of somebody else. The reporter of thirty years' standing had been "assured by most respectable attorneys, that counsel had taken their briefs with them, and that was the reason they could not hand them to other counsel:" and the reporter also took great credit to himself for not repeating "the harsh remarks he heard made by the attorneys with reference to the absence of their counsel;" and finally, in a letter to the editor, which he subsequently wrote, he admits he was wrong, and makes an awkward sort of apology. The other consequence, however, was, that in the interval between the accusation and the reporter's apology, a writer of leading articles for the Times, full of wrath that any thing appearing in its sacred columns should be called in question, and described as "rubbish," had done an article on the subject, on the assumption that the reporter's account would not be proved to be a fiction. In this article paragraphs of vulgar and ridiculous abuse were composed and levelled against Baron Bramwell, who, it seems, has not the fear of the press before his eyes. "We will," says the elegant and accomplished article writer, "leave Baron Bramwell to play Sir Oracle at Bristol, with the simple” (and it is, certainly, a very simple) "observation; that if the Bench is to be the accomplice of the Bar in this miserable trickery, the attorneys and the public must look to themselves." In passing, we would suggest that both attorneys and the public do generally "look to themselves," quite independently of the "miserable trickery" so ably discovered and denounced. Not content with composing this utter nonsense, the writer then proceeds :-" In our common law courts at present there are no Erskines, or Scarletts, or Folletts,
whose presence is indispensable if one would avoid defeat. Such a dreary dearth of talent was never known, or we should not have Bramwells on the judgment-seat." Some time since, curiously enough (during another slack period, probably), a writer in the same newspaper, which now permits its contributors to degrade its character by such passages as the above, commented, as we recollect, on the pre-eminence of Baron Bramwell when at the bar. "The Bramwells, Lushes, and Peacocks," were, we think, then, and doubtless for good reasons, referred to as the able lawyers of the epoch, far surpassing others who were in the paper of that day to be depreciated. Since the period when the Times chose to laud Mr. Bramwell, who then, by-the-bye, was rapidly rising to the head of the common law bar, he has taken a prominent part in reforming the procedure of the common law; and was one of the most vigorous and useful members of the most successful and practical commissions which has ever set to work to accomplish a great reform. He had long been known as a hardworking and able lawyer, who had achieved a reputation by his singular acuteness, and resolute determination in protecting the interests of his client: but on this commission he proved himself to possess a scientific knowledge of the principles of jurisprudence, and ability to apply that knowledge to the reconstruction of the practice of English law. When raised to the bench, his appointment (unlike the recent one, on which we have already commented) was hailed as the best possible exercise of discretion in selecting a man for the judicial office. The public thus acquired the services of a lawyer of experience and proved powers, and further, of one who personally deserved his promotion. Although the learned judge has justified, in his judicial career, the wisdom of those who made the appointment, nevertheless the public has been not unfrequently condemned to see insults passed upon him. On the occasion of the Western Circuit scandal, the reason is obvious: The reporter to a newspaper is guilty of misconduct in the performance of his business; and an article writer is rash and vulgar. Moreover, the managers of the paper do not like to have such misconduct exposed; nor to retract a statement, or
repudiate a sentiment once declared in large type. This thickand-thin sticking to an error once committed, as well as the attempts, by persistent abuse and terrorism, to put down the expression of opinion, are injurious to the character of the press.
We gladly admit that it is rare to find the leading journal forsaking alike decency and veracity, as on this occasion; and it is fortunate it is so. The two qualities which alone make a free press an engine for good, and preserve it from being a public nuisance and a social evil, are the truthfulness and talent employed upon it. If it should ever become in England a general practice to utter falsehood, and indulge in libellous comment through newspapers, their power will vanish self-suppressed.
Before dismissing the personal part of the case, we will take this opportunity of saying a few words on the relation generally of the Press to the Bar. The case of the Western Circuit and its critic is no doubt an exceptional one, in being especially gross ; for first, the information could not have been derived from the attorneys, as was alleged; and secondly, the spirit of falsehood was maintained afterwards in a very barefaced fashion. Thus certain members of the circuit took the trouble to explain in reply, by letter to the Times, that it was untrue they had run away with the briefs; on the contrary, so soon as they had discovered that the unexpected derangement of business would prevent their appearing at Bristol, they had "returned their briefs." Whereupon the editor actually thought it candid and respectable to remark on these letters, that though the briefs were said to be returned, nothing was said as to the fees. To lawyers the folly of this insinuation would be clear; but on the general reader the impression would, of course, be left unfavourable to the honesty of the bar. We do not, therefore, refer to this particular piece of newspaper conduct as a fair specimen of its class; but it cannot escape observation, that frequent opportunities are seized
1 This necessitated another letter, to explain that the fees had been also returned. When honoraria come to be written about in the newspapers, it is time for barristers to consult whether "fees" have not already taken the rank of debts or payments, as the case may be, and it would not be better to treat them as vulgar money due or received.