attack on the Court of Chancery2 by stating
“everything set forth in these pages concerning the Court of Chancery is substantially true, and within the truth” ( 5).
“Within the truth” is an invitation to the
reader. William Holdsworth in his book
Charles Dickens As A Legal Historian
writes, “What Dickens is concerned with is
the machinery by which the law was
enforced, the men who enforced it, the
conditions in which these men lived, and
the actual effects of the rules of law, substantive and adjective, upon the men and
women of his day” (Holdsworth 7).
Bleak House opens in the obscure
immoral fog of Chancery. “Never can there
come fog too thick, never can there come
mud and mire too deep, to assort with the
groping and floundering condition which
this High Court of Chancery, pestilent of
hoary sinners, holds, this day, in the sight
of heaven and earth” ( 14). This litigation
milieu pervades the entire novel. The fog
obscures and pollutes; it is dingy, filthy and
vile ( 42). The epicenter of the London fog
is Chancery, and Dickens refuses to “deny
the reality of ignorance, foolishness, malice,
Within the Chancery courts’ docket
resides the probate case of Jarndyce v.
Jarndyce, “a monument of Chancery prac-
tice” ( 33). Everyone who touches the case
is corrupted by it. Like a black hole,
“a fathomless pocket” (504), Chancery
pulls everyone around it into its depths
“by a dreadful attraction … a cruel attrac-
tion. You can’t leave it” (566). Escaping
Chancery may be possible through sponta-
neous combustion, as Krook does (519)
but, for most, it outlives the litigants—
until the money runs out. Richard
Carstone, a ward in Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, is
consumed by the case and has no other life.
Lawyers feast on their costs and prey on
their clients. One of Chancery’s victims
remarks, “My whole estate, left to me in
that will of my father, has gone in costs”
(251). Many Chancery suits ended this way
(Holdsworth 107). Dickens claims that if
actual authorities for Jarndyce v. Jarndyce
were needed, he could “rain them on these
Inequitable Equity Court
This is not what was intended. Chancery
was instituted as a court of justice and of
equity, where relief was to be available to the
poor, and the rigidity of the common law
courts softened. The Lord Chancellor him-
self was described as:
An officer of the greatest weight and
power of any now subsisting in the
kingdom; and superior in point of
precedency to every temporal lord …
keeper of the King’s conscience … .
He is the general guardian of all infants,
idiots and lunatics, and has the general
superintendence of all charitable uses
in the kingdom.
ANDREW PETERSEN is a partner at
Humphrey & Petersen PC. He has practiced
law in Tucson since 1995 after graduating
from UNC-Chapel Hill. His practice focuses
on civil defense litigation.
An employee just quit.
Or got fired.
Make sure the only thing they
clean out is their desk.