Last week at the National Archives, I was struggling with Chancery records from the 1820s. These documents, hand-written on heavy paper, three feet wide, some of them six feet long, contained the submissions to the Court of Chancery. They came in a grubby roll, more than a foot in diameter, and judging from the filthy string used to tie them up, had not been opened up for examination this side of the reign of Queen Victoria.
I was musing on the costs of the Court of Chancery; it was the real villain in Dickens’ Bleak House, where the case of Jarndyce vs Jarndyce dragged on for generations. Chancery was a so-called court of equity, the refuge of a wronged litigant when he had no recourse to statute or common law. It has been said that "...two centuries before Bleak House, Chancery became synonymous with expense, delay and despair..." Looking at the great pile of documents before me it, became clear that just the cost of preparing the submissions must have kept a whole army of clerks in expensive, full-time occupation.
I seem to have made a writing career chronicling Victorian miscarriages of justice. Miscarriages mostly, it has to be said, due to the judiciary themselves. In both of the cases I have researched, Chancery played a greater or lesser role. Thank goodness it’s not like that anymore.
Then, on Friday, I went inside the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand. The building(s), a sort of Victorian Gothic Ruritainian palace, were opened by the Queen in 1882 and little seems to have changed in the 130 years since. I was there because the wills search room has relocated to one of the courts from Holborn during some refurbishments.
Court 38, in the West Green Building, is almost as far from the entrance as it is possible to get, but the helpful enquiry desk provided a set of printed instructions for finding it; "Go to the rear of the main hall...Go through the central arch...Go up a few steps...turn left etc..." I found the West Green Building, although I did have to ask a lady barrister at one point because even half a page of instructions were not unambiguous...
I located the will I was after, and it was then necessary to go to the fees office to pay the copying charge. They provide a map to show you how to get there, via two courtyards and past the coffee shop. In this way I had the opportunity of walking around most of the ground floor.
The internal architecture of the RCJ is about as bizarre as the outside, and with the old-fashioned notice boards, the brass fittings, the extravagant tiled floors and the endless cloister-like corridors, it is difficult not to believe that you have been transported back to Victorian times. This impression is only reinforced by the occasional view of barristers scurrying about in their atavistic get-up, with horse-hair wigs, gowns and tabs over a winged collar.
And, God save us, there is still a Chancery Division in the Royal Courts of Justice!
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Welcome to the Mirli Books blog written by Peter Maggs