A Study of the Reputation of the Victorian Criminal Bar: ‘Absolutely Pure’ or ‘Pernicious to Morals, Jurisprudence and Government’

Rees, Edward (2023). A Study of the Reputation of the Victorian Criminal Bar: ‘Absolutely Pure’ or ‘Pernicious to Morals, Jurisprudence and Government’. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.00016ebb


This thesis examines the changes in public and press perceptions of the criminal Bar over the duration of the Victorian period. The reputational spectrum ranges from the intense criticism of the Bar and its institutions in the 1840s and 1850s, particularly as a consequence of the 1836 Prisoners’ Counsel Act which permitted defence counsel to address juries directly, to the more respectful regard from the 1880s onwards - by which time the public imagination had come to accept, and even laud, the leading practitioners as models who suited Victorian notions of professionalism. Ultimately, this work provides original insights into the nascence of modern professional habits and the requirements of professional qualification – in other words, the defining characteristics of the modern barrister. The principal research objective has been to determine the reasons for this improvement in the criminal Bar’s public standing. The thesis is founded on a thorough analysis of primary sources, notably mainstream and popular newspapers, periodicals and professional journals, which establishes a causal continuity between these ostensibly contradictory images. The thematic novelty of this particular study lies in the fact that it analyses the two most important components in the criminal Bar’s negative reputation – its courtroom behaviour and inadequate education – and sets them together within an overall historical process of change and improvement. It finds that the betterment of the criminal Bar’s external image was the direct outcome of internal shifts in behaviour and culture. These shifts were, in turn, responses to vehement press criticism. Accordingly, the last quarter of the nineteenth century came to be characterised by the gradual adoption of more measured courtroom styles which occurred in tandem with a belated engagement by the Inns of Court with systematic legal education and quality control.

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