Tuesday, February 19, 2013

History in the making


We take a lot of things for granted in our day-to-day lives without stopping to consider how things came to be.  Our legal system is surely complex and has its flaws, but learning how some of the conventions that are still used today came into being is fascinating.  The series Garrow's Law: The Complete Collection  takes a look a a legal trailblazer, William Garrow, and the difficulties he faced in reforming a system that was biased decidedly NOT in favor of the defendant.

William Garrow, portrayed by Andrew Buchan, was born in 1760 and was educated at his father's school.  He bitterly recalls being mocked by classmates because he didn't pay fees to attend the school.  This perhaps explains his compassionate views toward those who were not born into the upper classes.  He eventually came to the notice of Thomas Southouse (played here by the delightfully sympathetic Alun Armstrong), an attorney in London, and began attending trials at the Old Bailey to learn the ins and outs of the English legal system.  Garrow becomes a barrister, with Southouse "instructing" him as an attorney, meaning that Southouse had the power to steer cases to Garrow. 

At the time, a courtroom wasn't a very just or equitable place.  Once people were arrested, often on very flimsy evidence or so that "thief-takers" could obtain a reward for arresting someone, they were not allowed to mount much of a defense.  The defense counsel could not see the indictment against his client, visit the prisoner in Newgate, or see the depositions that might have been sworn against the client.  During the trial itself, the jury could not be addressed and no opening or closing speeches could be made.  It was pretty much a given that once arrested, you would be found guilty.

Garrow is credited with making many advances in the criminal legal system.  He is generally regarded as the founder of the "adversarial system" we are familiar with today, with both the prosecution and the defense given equal rights to evidence, the ability to call and examine witnesses, and the ability to present their cases to the jury.  Garrow is also famous for advocating the idea that a defendant was "innocent until proven guilty," thereby shifting the burden in the trial to the prosecution to prove guilt.  He is also portrayed as being impulsive, hot headed, and stubborn, often getting himself into trouble both in and out of the courtroom and making plenty of enemies among the powerful people of the day.

In addition to being drawn into cases featuring a variety of controversial issues of the day (slave ships, "the colonies," infanticide, homosexuality, etc.), Garrow must face a number of personal problems throughout the series.  He becomes infatuated with the lovely and intelligent (but married) Lady Sarah Hill.  They are drawn together by their shared sense of justice, but Lady Sarah's husband, the suspicious MP Sir Arthur Hill, believes that there is more to their relationship than an interest in the law.  After Sarah refuses to use her friendship with Garrow to find out inside information about an upcoming case, Sir Arthur decides to take a most severe revenge:  he throws Sarah out of the house, forbids her to see their infant son, and takes public legal action against Garrow.  These personal legal problems take up a great deal of Garrow's time and attention.

The cases that are shown are drawn from Old Bailey archives of actual cases.  It is really eye-opening to see how the legal system used to work, and how you could be arrested and hanged for such minor "crimes" as stealing a letter or being involved in a same-sex relationship.  Garrow's dedication to the rights of the accused revolutionized our legal system and ensured that everyone gets an opportunity at a defense.

This 3 DVD set contains all three series of the program.  There are also some fascinating extra features, including a behind the scenes look at how complex it is to make a series such as this. 

Disclaimer: I received a copy of Garrow's Law: The Complete Collection from Acorn Media in exchange for this review

Final Verdict for Garrow's Law: The Complete Collection Four Gherkins, for being a fascinating look at an early legal pioneer



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