Book review: Lord Mansfield – Justice in the Age of Reason by Norman S Poser

If you are not yet in love with eighteenth century London, Lord Mansfield – Justice in the Age of Reason by Norman S Poser will get you started. If, as mine did, your infatuation began with Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., you will be well prepared. But Poser’s account is so straightforward and clearly written that there is really no threshold of preparation to be overcome.

Both Boswell and Mansfield (born William Murray) were social climbers. Both were lawyers. Both were Scottish. They knew each other. In April of 1772 they appeared on opposite sides in an appeal in the House of Lords, and Murray won. Murray was educated in England, after at age 13, and unaccompanied, he rode a horse to London from Edinburgh, never seeing his parents again, to attend Westminster School. Johnson observed to Boswell: “Much may be made of a Scotchman, if he be caught young.” Boswell was educated in Scotland and Holland.

As a lawyer Murray had an appreciation of Roman law and as a judge he was inclined to be guided by principles rather than rules, introducing what some thought was an alarming unpredictability into the common law. Poser summarises this (p 402):

“His study of the great philosophers of law instilled in him a belief that all law was based on morality, reason, and human nature, which were the same everywhere, even though customs, mores, and traditions differ from country to country.”

Poser’s review of the courts in Westminster Hall is extraordinarily clear, and it is only regrettable that those who taught me legal history, and who wrote the textbooks, were not so interesting. The times were ones of, by our standards, corruption. Judicious payments could lead to judicial office. Judges kept for themselves a proportion of the court fees in cases they heard. Lord Mansfield – he insisted on being ennobled as a condition for his acceptance of the position of Chief Justice of the court of King’s Bench – on occasion was in the House of Lords when appeals from his own decisions were heard. His fear of exposure for a youthful indiscretion, which could have led to accusations of treason, led him to be unduly concerned with placating those in political power. But this was widely known anyway, and he was occasionally subjected to harsh criticism in print.

Murray was so able a lawyer, particularly because of his learning and his eloquence, that he quickly became a leader of the profession. He amassed a fortune, even before going to the bench – indeed it was probably his potential financial sacrifice that gave him the leverage to demand the peerage. He invested in mortgages on properties owned by aristocrats. He was incurably ambitious. As Horace Walpole wrote, “he knew it was safer to expound laws than to be exposed to them.”

He was an autocratic judge, although unafraid of admitting that he had been wrong. Poser gives us this:

“when asked why he had changed his mind on a particular point of law, he answered that it only showed that he was wiser today than he had been the day before.”

I can’t help but wonder whether Bramwell B was thinking of this when he said, in Andrews v Styrap (1872) 26 LT 704, at p 706: “the matter does not appear to me now as it appears to have appeared to me then”.

Mansfield worked extremely hard as a judge. He sat long hours and kept cases going even after he had gone home: juries would sometimes have to visit him in Bloomsbury Square to return their verdicts. His instructions to juries were alien to our standards, and he had a rather flexible attitude to penal laws he didn’t like. On one occasion he told a jury that (pp 352-353)

“… These penal laws were not meant to be enforced except at proper seasons, when there is a necessity for it; or, more properly speaking, they were not meant to be enforced at all, but were merely made in terrorem

” Take notice, if you bring him in guilty the punishment is very severe; a dreadful punishment indeed! Nothing less than perpetual imprisonment!”

Americans make a hero of Mansfield, and of his contemporary Blackstone, because they inherited the common law as it then was. More realistically, he had characteristics that are all too familiar: he was erudite, opinionated, a bully, a climber, avaricious and ambitious, acquisitive and greedy. He ended his years at his (then) country house, Kenwood in Hampstead, obese and arthritic, having clung to office until his inability to write forced him into retirement. In some ways, too, he was very kind, but he had a lot to be kind with.

Although he had, and apparently enjoyed, a long marriage, there were no children. As a ladies’ man he seems to have fitted Clive James’s description of Isaiah Berlin:

“Sexually inoperative but incorrigibly flirtatious, he loved the high-born ladies, who loved him right back, although his paucity of physical response – a desert under the ocean of talk – led several of them to despair …”

Boswell, in his journal entry for 11 April 1773, describes a conversation with Mansfield (who would live another 20 years, dying at age 88):

“He is all artificial. He affected to know little of Scotch appeals when over. I catched him … [showing that] he well remembered what he affected not to remember. It is unpleasant to see so high an administrator of justice such a man.”

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