(Jowitt’s Dictionary of
English Law). Yet the
“keeper of the King’s
conscience,” the Lord
Chancellor, “knows nothing of right and
wrong nor justice, he just sits to administer
the system” (251).
For Dickens, the courts manipulated
and consolidated power through establishment of its own procedures and past precedent. This past created voluminous case law
by judges and lawyers for the purpose of
extending their costs. “The one great principle of the English law is to make business
for itself” (621). The lawyers pursue their
own interests. Saturn-like, they protect their
power by devouring the lives and hopes of
those they should be protecting. They have
their defenders. The courts are declared
a “very great system” whose structure
endures “for a thousand ages” (950). The
lawyers and courts value themselves quite
apart from any consequences.
Jarndyce v. Jarndyce is described:
It is a slow, expensive, British, constitu-
tional kind of thing. … He regards the
Court of Chancery, even if it should
involve an occasional delay of justice
and a trifling amount of confusion, as a
something, devised in conjunction with
a variety of other somethings, by the
perfection of human wisdom, for the
eternal settlement (humanly speaking)
of everything ( 26).
Delay was a minor cost of doing business
when the courts believed that they were the
final arbiters of everything.
Bound by Precedent
Stare decisis3 applies the morality of past centuries, “the forensic wisdom of ages” (163).
Stare decisis infuses power. Only lawyers and
judges can know and understand, distinguish, and apply precedent. Lord Chancellor
Eldon wrote in 1818, “The doctrines of the
Court ought to be as well settled, and made
as uniform almost as those of the common
law, laying down fixed principles, but taking
care that they are to be applied according
to the circumstances of each case.” Gee v.
www.azbar.org/AZAttorney 22 ARIZONA ATTORNEY MAY 2015
Pritchard 2 Swanst. 402, 36 Eng. Reprint
670 (1818). In the midst of this structure
and power, Dickens writes that Chancery
“knows no wisdom but in precedent” (630).
The doctrine of precedent provides stability and to a certain degree predictability to
the law, but its very nature may tend toward
human remoteness. “There is no now for
the suitor in Chancery” (596). The litigants’
existence is centered on an illusory hope that
one day their suit will end, and they can
“begin the world” (977). But while their
cases languish, they are powerless.
Dickens reminds us that precedent, as all
legal constructs, cannot be fully understood
apart from its cultural and social context—
both broadly and within individual lives. He
asks us through his fiction to carefully and
honestly search for value and find the better
and the worse in human action. He enables
us to examine the costs of our own legal
constructs. Fiction has the ability to attain to
the truth. Fiction overcomes the distance
between the author and reader—unlike the
detached reading a judicial opinion requires.
Dickens does not teach by any authority
Dickens and Lessons From the Chancery Court