Description

This famous image by William Hogarth, engraved from an original painting in 1758, depicts four judges listening to a case in the Court of Common Pleas. Though intended purely as piece of comical caricature, much of the imagery reflects common perceptions of senior judges at the time: pompous and indifferent men, inattentive to most of their case, and half asleep or even drunk when cases were being heard.

The reality of the law was in fact often quite different. During the 18th century senior judges were highly active in criminal proceedings, especially in felony cases where full defence counsel was denied to defendants until 1836. In the absence of defence lawyers, many judges adopted the role of chairman on the proceedings, and in fact acted as chief prosecutor on behalf of the crown: examining witnesses, summing up cases and offering direction to juries. With such control over the administration of justice, individual judges therefore wielded enormous influence on the outcome of trials.

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