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  • Writer's pictureRobert Spicer

The Levellers on Law

The Levellers

Some of the earliest and most devastating criticisms of English law and lawyers were made by the Levellers in the seventeenth century in the context of revolutionary changes in English society following the Civil War and the execution of Charles I. The Leveller movement advocated popular sovereignty, extended suffrage, equality before the law and religious tolerance. The Levellers proposed radical reforms, most of which have not yet been carried out in Britain. The Levellers put forward a revolutionary programme, including the codification of the common law in a brief and intelligible handbook, the abolition of barbarous punishments and the reform of the prisons. Its keynote was decentralisation, so that the common man and his neighbours should govern themselves through their juries and elected magistrates.

HN Brailsford states that, during the 1640s, the courts were distrusted and the legal profession disliked. In Brailsford’s view, the legal profession was greedy and corrupt and its technical habit of mind was even more unintelligible to the common man than it is today. Official documents and statutes were in Latin or Norman French. Indictments were not valid until they were read out in court in Latin. The fees lawyers charged were generally felt to be exorbitant and some of them were shameless in protracting litigation until their clients were ruined. In 1653 it was said that 23,000 cases had been waiting for settlement in Chancery for ten, twenty and even thirty years.

It happened constantly, Brailsford states, that peasants allowed their cases against landlords who robbed them of their common land by enclosure to go by default, because they could not afford to hire a Chancery lawyer. Workers who had grievances against their employer were in the same position. They had no trade union and could not face the cost of litigation at Westminster whereas the employers could.

Brailsford also points out that it would be easy to compile from the memoirs of this period a long list of the fabulous fortunes made by lawyers, beginning with Sir Edward Coke who is said to have made £100,000 in a single year.

Based on innumerable and sometimes conflicting precedents, the common law could be understood and applied to particular cases only by a skilled body of professional lawyers, who levied a heavy toll on the rest of the nation and made a resort to the courts so costly that only the rather rich or the very rash would venture on litigation.

In every rank of society below the upper layer to which the legal oligarchy belonged, a dread of the law courts and a detestation of lawyers were widespread.

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