Sir John Fielding is an unjustly neglected figure within British history. Professor John Beattie in the latest Law and History Review offers us many reasons to reconsider that verdict and look into Fielding's impact upon the system of justice that we live with to this day. Looking at his reforms and our system through this historical perspective, we are able to see how much of our modern criminal procedure is actually contingent upon the kind of society we live in.
Fielding succeeded his brother Henry Fielding as a magistrate at the Bow Street Court in 1754 and remained there until 1780.
The Government, increasingly worried by the scale of the problem of combatting rebellion and crime in London, had begun to take the Bow Street Magistrates under its wing. It had attempted to build up the power and prestige of various magistrates at Bow Street, starting with Thomas de Veill in the 1720s, continuing its support to Henry Fielding in the 1740s and then extending that support to Sir John. Over the years the nature of the support had changed, whereas de Veill received money to employ a clerk and had eventually obtained a knighthood, Henry Fielding instigated and Sir John Fielding carried out much more radical work.
In 1751 Henry Fielding proposed a model whereby the magistrate would employ proffessional runners to find criminals, to interview victims and to help a magistrate bring a prosecution to the Old Bailey. At this point in British history, the magistrate's role was confined to taking statements from the victim and the accused and then submitting those statements to a formal trial- as Professor Beattie shows the role of the magistrate changed through the implementation of these proposals.
Henry Fielding was unable to carry out this program. But his brother John succeeded him as the magistrate at the Bow Street Court in 1754, and set up a group of men, called the Bow Street Runners who met informally in a tavern down the street from the court and who became full time investigators of crime in London. Many of them acquired great experience- John Townsend pictured here was one who John Townsend worked for years bringing cases to the Bow Street Court (he is pictured on the right) and acquired a proffessional ability unknown until that point in English history.
But Fielding did much more than that as a magistrate- better investigation was but one half of a process. The other half was that he began to hold public hearings in the capitol. These public hearings were advertised in the press which released details of cases that Fielding heard in his magisterial court at Bow Street. He rebuilt the premises to encourage large crowds to attend and was amongst the first magistrates to dismiss charges as well as commit them. Fielding held identification parades in his court house. He held repeat hearings, hoping that the advertisement in the press would encourage people to attend and identify the accused as being the perpetrator of a different crime. These new methods led to half of all the cases at the Old Bailey having proceeded from his court and by his death other magistrates were copying his procedures.
However there were downsides to his reforms- and they are interesting to reflect upon. For example, scandals about Press coverage of cases didn't begin in Cambridge or in the United States, they began largely (though of course not exclusively) with Fielding's court. He encouraged press coverage of cases to bring new accusers forward- but that led to the exploration of evidence in public by the press and the worry that trials might be retarded or even prejudiced. The words of the Attorney General, James Wallace in 1780 warned (the words are from a contemporary press report)
that the PUBLIC examination[s] at Bow-street were productive of the most mischievous consequences to society. The injury done to individuals, who might be innocent, was such for which no possible compensation would be made; the evidence for the Crown was given up; the prisoner came to his trial without the possibility of a fair enquiry; the minds of the people were influenced; the jury prejudiced; and, where any possible guilt lodged, the prisoner hardly stood the chance of a fair acquittal.
Wallace was no fan of the new techniques but it should be noted that Fielding's work proceeded initially from a ministerial concern with the way that London functioned. Wallace's worry about the consequences of the changes he had introduced- usher us into a new topic.
As the powers of the prosecuting authorities expanded, their use of the press and policing became more sophisticated, so were rights for the defendent created. Where previously a defendent facing an accusation from an amateur victim was thought to need no counsel to aid him, now facing an accusation from a magistrate backed by a set of Bow Street Runners, we see defence counsel. From the 1730s as the central funding of the Bow Street Magistrates started, we see cross examinations from the defence in trials at the Old Bailey. From the 1780s after Fielding we see defence lawyers emerging in the magistrates' courts in London, starting with Bow. And as the system of policing was expanded and professionalised by 19th Century reformers including Peel, we see the creation of formal legal rights.
In many ways therefore just as Sir John Fielding's new ideas for ways to prosecute criminals were implemented, reformed, reanalysed and eventually expanded to the whole country, so as a counter movement the rights of the defendent became entrenched in law. Moving away from a local and amateur system of justice, resting upon deep local knowledge, to a system of justice suitable for large urban communities meant that prosecution was turned over to the state and defendents acquired both legal rights and legal representation.
Its interesting as a last thought to reflect upon what this says about our current system- the Prime Minister and Head of the Metropolitan Police (chief police officer in the UK) continually tell us that we see new threats and need new ways to prosecute and police those threats. It may be that at the same time, just as in the eighteenth century, we as private citizens and therefore potential defendents need new rights to counter new prosecutions- perhaps in matters like data protection you can already see both trends taking place, government now holds a great deal more information about us and we now have rights to see that information.
Whatever we say about that- the consequences of Sir John Fielding's reforms and institutional changes have been dramatic within society and the ideological commitment both to order and the rights of the defendant which date from the eighteenth century are profound parts of our political way of life. Their largely unheralded evolution needs better charting and Professor Beattie has done us all a great favour in charting the way Fielding changed the British criminal system.