- John Dickens in the Witness Box:The Mirror of Parliament and a Case of Libel
That the troubled finances of Charles Dickens’s father were the subject of scrutiny in a London court of law is well known.1 That he appeared before the Court of the King’s Bench at Westminster in 1831 and 1832 on a quite different matter is not.2 The testimonies that John Dickens gave on these occasions were, in themselves, of little significance. Nevertheless, they contributed to a series of events that, together, threatened for a while the reputations of leading legal figures, challenged the competence of a long-established part of the legal system, and prompted discussion of the respective responsibilities of press and Parliament in the matter of parliamentary privilege. The whole affair began, innocuously enough, with the death of an old man in Wales.3
Evan Evans died “at a very advanced age” at Llandaff in Glamorgan on 13 December 1821. His will was contested by his god-daughter’s husband, an excise officer from Frome in Somerset called William Peddle, who employed a well-established Bristol solicitor, Charles Houlden Walker.
Peddle’s case was to be heard in Doctors’ Commons, the ancient London college of civil law advocates and proctors, which, through its Prerogative Court of Canterbury, had an exclusive right to exercise jurisdiction over [End Page 93] probate matters through most of southern England and Wales.4 Walker consequently instructed a Commons proctor, Edward Toller, to act on Peddle’s behalf. Among the legal team opposing Peddle was Stephen Lushington, an eminent Commons advocate. The case came on in the Prerogative Court on 1 July 1824 before Sir John Nicholl, Dean of the Arches and President of the Commons, who, like Lushington, was also a member of Parliament.5
At the hearing, Nicholl found against Peddle, but declined to award his opponent costs. Toller took this as an indication that his client’s case was not without merit, and, through Walker, advised Peddle to appeal. He did so, and the case was heard again before the High Court of Delegates, which, in March 1826, upheld Nicholl’s judgement.
Shortly afterwards, Toller’s bill arrived. It was for a higher amount than Peddle and Walker had anticipated, and it became apparent that legal costs now exceeded the value of the disputed estate. (It later emerged that the same was almost true regarding the costs of Peddle’s successful opponent.) Peddle asked Toller for a break-down of the costs, and when this failed to materialize, he applied for the bill to be examined formally – a process involving a hearing before an officer of the Prerogative Court Registry. Peddle attended the hearing and asked to see a table of fees charged by Commons proctors. He was dismayed to learn that no such table existed, despite the Court canons apparently requiring its Registrar, under pain of suspension, to display such a tariff.
In a series of representations to the Prerogative Court, all of which were disallowed by Nicholl, Peddle and Walker expressed their exasperation at the Court’s long-winded handling of the whole affair, asked that the fee tariff be disclosed, and, finally, put forward a motion that, until this occurred, the Registrar and his responsible officers be suspended.
On the day set for the motion to be heard – 1 July 1828 – Nicholl declined to consider the matter, and, when, a week later, the representative that Peddle had by then appointed in Toller’s place continued to press his client’s case, he threatened to have him forcibly removed from the court-room.
Lacking any other apparent recourse, Peddle decided to petition the House [End Page 94] of Commons. Together with Walker, he therefore set out the circumstances of the original action, the appeal, and the request for the examination of costs, and asked that Nicholl’s conduct of the process be investigated.
Peddle and Walker were not alone at this time in their poor opinion of the procedures operating in Doctors’ Commons and in the Prerogative Court in particular. Through the first half of the nineteenth-century, disquietude had grown about the unabashed sinecurism, pluralism and...