ickens' characterization of Jaggers dominates the portrayal of the law and its role in creating justice in England. Despite the lack of emphasis placed directly on issues of the law, Dickens' portrayal of the system remains true, for the most part, to the nature of contemporary courtroom experience. The July 1857 Westminster Review (Vol. 68) includes an article entitled “English Courts of Law" that discusses the nature of the law and the courtroom. In using this article as a context for Dickens' exploration, Jaggers becomes somewhat less severe of a figure. His attitudes seem fairly typical for lawyers, and his working conditions in Great Expectations are very like the actual depiction of the courtroom in this contemporary description. Though Dickens discusses the role of law in society in a peripheral manner, he still manages to make poignant statements that enlighten the reader in this subject as it relates to the author's society.
The article begins describing the terrible conditions of courtrooms, ranging from the physical defects to the use of inefficient methods. The courtroom experience involved a great amount of ceremony that remained unbroken simply because of tradition. Several of these ceremonial actions became rather comedic in their utter uselessness and waste of expenses. The arrangements were hasty, the ventilation terrible, and the rooms unsuited, having been built for other purposes. The description of the courts creates a sense of Dickensian comedy as he shows how dilapidated and disorganized everything really was. In an effort to improve the air currents of one court, the court officials pumped air in from a main sewer. “The effect was magical; not the oldest lawyers present had ever smelt such a stench before, used as they were to bad smells" ("English Courts of Law," 33).
The unclean robing rooms and lack of resources also forced lawyers to share the scant supply of towels, combs, and water. Such conditions led the writer of the article to remark, “there is scarcely a court in the width and breadth of the land that is not a disgrace to the country" (Westminster 33). Although Jagger's room does not serve as a courtroom, Dickens does use it to represent the average office of the legal profession. “Mr. Jaggers' own high-backed chair was of deadly black horsehair, with rows of brass nails around it, like a coffin...The room was but small, and the clients seemed to have had a habit of backing up against the wall: the wall, especially opposite to Mr. Jaggers' chair, being greasy with shoulders" (Dickens 151). This passage gives the reader a sense of the dark and shady rooms that held most of the legal discussions of the times. Furthermore, Dickens portrays the clients, and as a result the wall, as greasy, creating a feeling of dirtiness.
However, this passage bears significance not only for its portrayal of the room, but for the characterization of the lawyer working within it. The clients cower against the wall in the overwhelming presence of Jaggers. This is no wonder when one considers Jaggers treatment of Mike, one of his most regular clients. In response to Mike's amusing statement that one of the witnesses is prepared to swear “in a general way," Jaggers exclaims, “'Now I warned you before that if you ever presumed to talk in that way here, I'd make an example of you. How dare you tell ME that'" (Dickens 155). The author may have exaggerated the tone of the average lawyer in creating Jaggers' savage persona, but undeniably, many of the workers in the law profession treated their clients and witnesses with similar harshness.
"English Courts of Law" talks of general rudeness towards jury members, witnesses, and clients. The court rarely informed these groups of the proceedings and left many to wait outside, in great halls with no seats, until the court needed them. The general confusion of the court often added to the mistreatment. The court did not inform people where to sit, leading to many delays in the cases. One such delay describes a search for the jury members: “The hunt had been unsuccessful, and the business of the Common Pleas stopped; but at this crisis it is discovered that the persons required have been all the time seated in the barrister's seats, totally unaware that they were the persons in whose behalf all this commotion had taken place" (Westminster 38). The disorder of the court in combination with the lack of respect for clients, witnesses and jury members led to a great deal of bullying. The author of the article writes, “If a man is originally of a vulgar nature, the practice of the Bar is apt to foster and aggravate the disposition to rudeness and indifference" (Westminster 43). Clearly Dickens' illustration of Jaggers fits into the model of many of the lawyers of the time period, whether exaggerated or not.
The courtroom experience was not a friendly one for the witnesses either. The article refers to the “detestable system of bullying," and claims that “the witness is treated as if of no interest to anyone" (Westminster 41). Jaggers fits right into this category of lawyer, according to Wemmick's description of him handling a witness: “If anybody, of whatsoever degree, said a word that he didn't approve of, he instantly required to “have it taken down." If anybody wouldn't make an admission, he said, “I'll have it out of you!" and if anybody made an admission, he said, “Now I have got you!" (Dickens 188). The article describes courts of law mistreating witnesses by badgering them into contradictions, confusing them and twisting their words. One might argue that the system of today shows very little difference. It is, at times, still the role of the lawyer to badger and confuse in cross-examination. But at the very least, the court gives the witness rights and treats them with dignity. In Dickens' society, the witnesses were “compelled under heavy penalties to attend and speak. They are treated as if they had done something wrong" (39).
The client fared no better in the courtroom than the jurors and witnesses. At the time, the state did not provide an attorney for those who could not afford one. Magwitch possesses enough money to pay for Jaggers, but this is a rarity for convicts and Magwitch is, indeed, lucky. Yet the prosecutors put him under the legal microscope, just as they would to any witness or defendant. Ironically, the author of the article writes of defendants in general, “He is treated as innocent until proven guilty" (48). Dickens seems to take issue with this, because the court does not give Magwitch the benefit of the doubt. They hold his past crimes and nature against him. Magwitch tells Pip and Herbert: “When the prosecution opened and the evidence was put short, aforehand, I noticed how heavy it all bore on me, how light on him. When the evidence was giv, in the box, I noticed how it was always me that had come for'ard, and could be swore to" (Dickens 325). The convict goes on, describing how the defense lawyer portrayed Compeyson as a young and noble man and himself as a wretched villain who had persuaded the younger man into an evil way of life. The court condemns Magwitch from the beginning, leaving Jaggers little chance to save him from conviction. “English Courts of Law," quotes the first president of France as saying, “Of all the evil things that take place in the administration of justice, none is to be compared to condemning an innocent person; and it is better to acquit a thousand guilty persons" (52). Although Magwitch had committed these crimes, the prejudice against him in the court system created an assumption of his guilt, ruling based on his past faults. The irony lies in the fact that the court's portrayal of Magwitch does not measure up to the convict who proved his decency and sense of gratitude in trying to do some good in the world by making Pip into a gentleman.
- "Scenes in Court" (from London Characters and the Humourous Side of London Life (8 sections)
- Chaos in the Courtroom (an illustration to Alice in Wonderland
Last modified 1996