The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

The Law in England

Category: Politics

The Law and the Church are powerfully interlocked with the History of Britain. Both judges and bishops sit in the House of Lords, and are honoured with ancient titles. Both reached a climax of fame in Victorian times. Both have been intensely conservative and resistant to change — as their votes in the House of Lords showed.

The Victorian prestige of the law is expressed in the Royal Courts of Justice, built in 1880 when the legal profession was at its height. A broad doorway leads into a fake medieval hall, like a stripped-down cathedral, adorned with big black-letter notices announcing “Lord Justice’s Court’’, or “Wash and Brush Up’’. Ordinary dark-suited men carrying blue or red bags walk into a room by the entrance, and emerge a few minutes later solemnly wearing horse-hair or nylon wigs and flowing gowns.

The conservatism of English lawyers is reinforced by their strict division into solicitors and barristers — found only in New Zealand, South Africa, New South Wales and Great Britain. Only solicitors are allowed to deal directly with the public. They perform all routine business: but when they have to take a case to the central courts, they must employ a barrister to plead.

A barrister is required to have reached an accepted educational standard, to have passed the legal examinations conducted by the Council of Legal Education and to have become a member of the Inns of Court. A barrister with a substantial junior practice may apply to the Lord Chancellor for a patent appointing him Queen’s Counsel — a proceeding known as “taking the silk’’. Most higher judicial appointments are made from among barristers who have become Queen’s Counsel. The professional conduct of a barrister is subject to the scrutiny of the General Council of the Bar; but disciplinary powers are vested exclusively in the Senate of the Inns of Court.

A prospective solicitor must be considered suitable by the appropriate committee of the Law Society® (the professional organisation of solicitors) and he must enter into “articles of clerkship’’ with a practising solicitor of not less than live years’ standing before he can begin his professional career. The term of articles lasts for three or five years, depending upon the educational qualifications of the student.

An articled clerk must pass the necessary examinations held by the Law Society and, unless he has been a barrister or isa law graduate of a university, he is generally required to attend a course of studies at a recognised law school. Once a solicitor is qualified, he may become a member of the Law society.

Half the barristers in Britain work in one of the four Inns of Court — Gray’s Inn, Lincoln’s Inn, the Middle Temple and the Inner Temple. They work, in groups of six or more in ‘chambers’, approached by stone steps, with their names proclaimed in elegant eighteenth-century letters. The Inns have their own snobberies and pecking-order. The oldest and richest is the Inner Temple, which has produced the largest number of judges: Next to it, the Middle Temple is less exclusive, across the road, Lincoln’s Inn is almost entirely frequented by Chancery lawyers; while Gray’s Inn, the newest of them, is known for its numbers of provincial barristers.

The Inns, like Oxford colleges, have large powers: they are responsible for admissions and discipline, and have refused to delegate real power to the Bar Council. They are a survival of medieval republican oligarchy, the last to be found in Europe. They have large endowments in land, but no one knows the extent of their wealth since, unlike most other institutions, they are exempted from publishing their accounts. They are ruled by Benchers, who are among the most die-hard and self-centred groups in the country, and the Inns of Court find it difficult to come to terms with each other, let alone with the public. The Inns are among the most absurd anachronisms in Britain.

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