September 27, 2009

Justice for Chartists in Sheffield

Catherine Lewis has written an interesting article in the new Crimes and Misdemeanours Journal about the Chartist Samuel Holberry. Lewis argues that Holberry, who was arrested in 1840 for seditious conspiracy, imprisoned after a trial and who died two years later in prison, was unjustly held by the state. He was not guilty of the crimes that he was charged with and the process that was used to convict him illustrates the partiality of the English court system. She brings in as evidence the fact that evidence favourable to Holberry was excluded from his trial, he seems not to have been allowed legal counsel during his interrogation, the state used spurious charges in order to manufacture witnesses (one chartist Thompson only gave evidence when the state charged his father- charges that were swiftly dropped) and that Holberry was not allowed to summon his own witnesses nor give evidence himself. Some of her speculation, including the fact that there is good evidence Holberry was planning to hold a lecture and debate on the day after he was supposed to be planning armed insurrection demonstrates the strength of her point. Holberry was not served well by British justice of the 1840s.

It is in asking why this happened that I think we could go further than Lewis's article does. She cites two things- both important- one of which is the judicial system and the other is the attitude of the police. Let us start with the first: the British judicial system, contrary to opinion, is not timeless and has been in constant development to meet with new changes in society. I've described work on some of those changes in the way that it worked to meet the challenges of 18th Century urbanisation elsewhere. Basically the justice system meets two demands upon it: firstly to deal with an immediate new problem- crime in urban areas, political unrest or even today terrorism- and then the protests of those who are motivated by miscarriages of justice. In a sense with the chartist Holberry we see the first activity, the judicial system had caught up with the fact of radicalism's existance and was beggining to offer justice to those terrified by the radical threat- it had not developed structures to allow radicals to defend themselves. Furthermore one could argue that it was still developing post-Fielding structures of defence to accomodate the new powers of the prosecution thanks to the development of a police force.

The second point is about the police themselves. Lewis does acknowledge that they were driven by paranoia- but I think she makes this point too weakly at the end of her article and in the rest of her piece the state appears to be an agent. I am not sure this is true in the 19th Century context- it would be easier for anyone designing a criminal justice system if it were true that the police convicted the innocent for political or wilful reasons. They were in receipt mostly of information from informers- in this case Allen- that they could not prove. The incentive for those informers was to produce a crime- to earn their wages. The problem that we all face, at any moment in history, is not that those charged with bringing people to prosecution will wilfully convict the innocent- or at least if that is a problem it is easily dealt with- it is that those charged with bringing people to prosecution have neccessarily a single responsibility. They are there primarily to protect the public by framing a case against the accused- and that means that their bias will always be to there own invention, whether true or not, the case. oo. In a sense, the police have a duty to be paranoid: they must suspect and it is for other parts of the system to protect.

Lewis's piece is valuable- I did not know about Holberry's trial and definitely had a higher view of the system than I should have had having read what she writes. She brings out the bias against Holberry visible in the trial- evidence not presented, evidence coerced and improved upon in order to secure the safety of the witnesses. Her article powerfully suggests that Holberry was convicted wrongly and died unjustly. It takes its place in a history of English justice that would put evolution not consistency at the heart of its account.