In Charles Dickens day, the Court Houses were very bleak houses indeed.
But even Charles Dickens would pale at the sight of today’s Court Houses which, in Australia at least, more often resemble fiascos, mad houses and slaughter houses, though still true to the lawyers credo according to Dickens, that the grand scheme of the judicial system is to create grand wealth (and grand political power) for the lawyer class.
Jarndyce and Jarndyce is a fictional court case in the novel Bleak House by Charles Dickens.
The case concerns the fate of a large inheritance. It has dragged on for many generations prior to the action of the novel, so that, by the time it is resolved late in the narrative, legal costs have devoured the entire estate. The case is thus a byword for an interminable legal proceeding. For example, Lord Denning MR, referring to Midland Bank v Green, said “The Green Saga rivals in time and money the story of Jarndyce and Jarndyce.” Dickens used it to attack the chancery court system as being near totally worthless, as any “honourable man among its [Chancery’s] practitioners” says, “Suffer any wrong that can be done you rather than come here!”
All of the main characters are connected in some way through the case, though the actual legal proceedings appear only as background plot. Aside from the lawyers who prosecute and defend the case every character who directly associates with it suffers some tragic fate. Miss Flite has long since lost her mind when the narrative begins, and Richard Carstone dies trying to win the inheritance for himself.
From the first chapter:
“Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on. This scarecrow of a suit has, in course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means. The parties to it understand it least, but it has been observed that no two Chancery lawyers can talk about it for five minutes without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises. Innumerable children have been born into the cause; innumerable old people have died out of it. Scores of persons have deliriously found themselves made parties in Jarndyce and Jarndyce without knowing how or why; whole families have inherited legendary hatreds with the suit. The little plaintiff or defendant who was promised a new rocking-horse when Jarndyce and Jarndyce should be settled has grown up, possessed himself of a real horse, and trotted away into the other world. Fair wards of court have faded into mothers and grandmothers; a long procession of Chancellors has come in and gone out; the legion of bills in the suit have been transformed into mere bills of mortality; there are not three Jarndyces left upon the earth perhaps since old Tom Jarndyce in despair blew his brains out at a coffee-house in Chancery Lane; but Jarndyce and Jarndyce still drags its dreary length before the court, perennially hopeless.”
The ending of the case reduces the whole court to fits of laughter. From Chapter 65:
“We asked a gentleman by us if he knew what cause was on. He told us Jarndyce and Jarndyce. We asked him if he knew what was doing in it. He said really, no he did not, nobody ever did, but as well as he could make out, it was over. Over for the day? we asked him. No, he said, over for good. Over for good! When we heard this unaccountable answer, we looked at one another quite lost in amazement. Could it be possible that the will had set things right at last and that Richard and Ada were going to be rich? It seemed too good to be true. Alas it was! Our suspense was short, for a break-up soon took place in the crowd, and the people came streaming out looking flushed and hot and bringing a quantity of bad air with them. Still they were all exceedingly amused and were more like people coming out from a farce or a juggler than from a court of justice. We stood aside, watching for any countenance we knew, and presently great bundles of paper began to be carried out–bundles in bags, bundles too large to be got into any bags, immense masses of papers of all shapes and no shapes, which the bearers staggered under, and threw down for the time being, anyhow, on the Hall pavement, while they went back to bring out more. Even these clerks were laughing. We glanced at the papers, and seeing Jarndyce and Jarndyce everywhere, asked an official-looking person who was standing in the midst of them whether the cause was over. Yes, he said, it was all up with it at last, and burst out laughing too.
“Mr. Kenge,” said Allan, appearing enlightened all in a moment. “Excuse me, our time presses. Do I understand that the whole estate is found to have been absorbed in costs?” “Hem! I believe so,” returned Mr. Kenge. “Mr. Vholes, what do YOU say?” “I believe so,” said Mr. Vholes. “And that thus the suit lapses and melts away?” “Probably,” returned Mr. Kenge. “Mr. Vholes?” “Probably,” said Mr. Vholes.”
Some commentators have theorized that the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case was inspired by the dispute over the will of the father-in-law of eighteenth century writer Charlotte Smith. That case took thirty-six years to get through the court.
The next time you happen to pay a visit to one of Australia’s bleak- slaughter- court houses, I suggest you arrive a bit early. There is a high likelihood that you will overhear a conversation between a Mr Tweedldum-Jarndyce QC and his barrister or solicitor bretheren or sisteren on the opposite side of “the case”, whom we will call Mr Tweedledee-Jarndyce QC to preserve their anonymity (rather than risk copping a law suit for publishing the truth). More than likely, one will turn and say to the other (not having read any of the papers for the case which is about to start, showtime in five minutes) after customary nods and secret handshakes: “What’s this all about then?” More than likely you will hear the “mate-ing call” reply “About 3 months school fees.” followed by rapturous laughter between them and any other members of the (allegedly) once noble profession of lawyers within earshot of the conversation.
But don’t take them, and their lawyerly horseplay, beneath their horse-hair wigs, seriously.
Because they don’t take you, or their clients, or such old fashioned notions as professional skill, professional ethics or professional judgment seriously either – after all there are no laws, and certainly no legal regulators, that requirement them to.
As Dante recorded on the gates to hell, as Dickens translated for his very Victorian upper class readership and characters,“Suffer any wrong that can be done you rather than come here!”.
And if lawyers confront you armed with writs and shout “stand and deliver”, stand and deliver all your assets, and then catch the next train to the coast and boat to foreign lands, rather than chancery your arm of having any property or other legal or human rights respected and upheld in any of Australia’s bleak house, mad house, slaughter house, court houses.
… to be continued …
James Johnson, Independent Federal Candidate for Lalor