Monday, May 07, 2012

Celebrating William Garrow

Did you ever wonder where the presumption of innocence in criminal trials came from?  What about the inadmissibility of hearsay evidence?  I had always assumed (incorrectly, as it turned out) that they had been part of British law at least as far back as the Normans.  Recently, however, thanks to a terrific British television series, Garrow's Law, I learned about the man who was responsible for the introduction of these important principles into the Anglo-American legal tradition.  The series uses real-life legal cases argued by Garrow at the Old Bailey to dramatize the career and life of the man who brought about what amounted to a revolution in the English common law. 

Sir William Garrow (1760-1840) isn't as well known as he deserves to be, but the TV series and recent  biography (John Hostettler and Richard Braby, Sir William Garrow:  His Life, Times and Fight for Justice, 2009) should help to rescue him from obscurity.  Garrow was a  crusading barrister who was a fixture at the Old Bailey--the Central Criminal Court in London--for about ten years in the late eighteenth century.  According to the preface of the Hostettler and Braby biography, Garrow's "aggressive defence of clients creat[ed] a new phenomenon in the criminal trial."  In fact, Garrow "led the way in altering the whole relationship between the state and the individual by his role in the revolutionary introduction of adversary trial."  (p. ix).  Garrow's skills at cross examination were legendary, and he helped to create rules of criminal procedure meant to protect the rights of prisoners.  According to Hostettler and Braby, "adversary trial was given constitutional recognition in the United States Bill of Rights and spread to all countries influenced by the common law."  (p. xi)  Garrow eventually became a member of Parliament, Solicitor-General, Attorney-General, and a judge, but was mostly forgotten after his death.  

Drawing mainly upon his career in the Old Bailey, Garrow's Law ran for three series of four episodes each.  The BBC recently decided not to renew it for a fourth series, which is a shame because I found it to be well acted and compelling.   The producers of the series drew upon the Old Bailey's archives for their inspiration, a process that is documented in this short film about the making of the show.   The Garrow Society website also offers information about his life and work.  All are well worth checking out.

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