Here and there – Anthony Trollope on laws and morals

 

The 1982 BBC TV series The Barchester Chronicles was and is outstanding television.  The cast was what is called ‘stellar’ – Donald Pleasance, Nigel Hawthorne, Alan Rickman, Geraldine McEwan and Susan Hampshire.  It was based on two novels by Anthony Trollope about the affairs of the Church of England in a small cathedral town in Victorian England.

The first part comes from the novel The Warden.  Mr Harding (Donald Pleasance) is a saintly figure of a vicar.  By the grace of his bishop, he holds the position of Warden of a hospital for poor old men under a charitable trust that goes back to the middle ages.  The position is now worth 800 pounds a year – a very large amount of money then.  By contrast, the old inmates are not nearly as well off.  A crusading doctor and an ambitious journalist decide to take the issue on.  They tell the inmates that most of the money should go to them.  It all depends on the interpretation of the ancient will that set up the trust.

The good Mr Harding feels very uneasy about all this.  In today’s language, the ‘optics’ are not good.  But his archdeacon (Nigel Hawthorne), who is also his son in law, and the son of the bishop, is determined to uphold the privileges of the church.  When it comes to the legal defence of the church, money is no problem.  The archdeacon instructs the church’s solicitors to brief the nation’s leading lawyer, the Attorney-General Sir Abraham Haphazard to advise.  The resulting advice leads to the issue of the novel.  It is an issue that some of our clergy and their lawyers may well have benefited from pondering.

Since the legal action that the crusaders had launched related to a charity, the plaintiff may well have been the Crown in what is called a relator action.  We can put that to one side, because nothing turned on it.  But there was a legal issue about the defendants.  The action was against Mr Harding, who ran the hospital, and Mr Chadwick, who looked after the books.

As I follow it, Sir Abraham advised that the action would be likely to fail on two counts.  First, they had sued the wrong people.  The defendants should have been the church corporation, or the relevant chapter of the church – or ‘the bishop he thinks would be the surest shot; but even there we could plead that the bishop is only visitor, and that he has never made himself a consenting party to the performance of other duties.’  Secondly, the advice was that Messrs Harding and Chadwick were merely paid servants and that it was not up to the court to query their allotted stipend.

I may say I have some difficulty with both propositions.  As to the first, at the beginning of chapter 16, the action is described as ‘The Queen on behalf of the Wool-carders of Barchester v Trustees under the will of the late John Hiram.’  As to the second, as Mr Harding said immediately, ‘that can hardly be a just arrangement’ if he could allot what salary he liked to himself leaving the twelve poor inmates no redress.  Nevertheless, the book proceeds on the footing that the legal effect of this advice is that the action will very likely fail.

Well, you can imagine the Trumpian glee with which the archdeacon received this advice.  But most people, in or outside the law, would regard these points as technical or procedural rather than going to the merits of the case.  (They resemble the kind of point I was obliged to take in defending the most unpopular TV repair man Melbourne had seen – the problem was the people loathed him so much that they made errors in the way they trumpeted the justice of their cause.)

The author says of the archdeacon:  ‘Success was his object, and he was generally successful.’  Mr Chadwick was also a hard-head.  ‘The point is so nice, as Sir Abraham says, that you would force them into fifteen thousand pounds’ cost before they could bring it to an issue! And where’s that sum of money to come from?’  This is what some call the sporting theory of justice; what others call trial by ambush – the archdeacon is firmly against telling the other side of the trap they are walking into; and you don’t often hear what Americans call an 800 pound gorilla being as candid as that – although we all know of large corporations who will not blush to play the role of a bully.  (One newspaper made an art form of trying to beat plaintiffs into submission by taking arid points of pleading.)

To the objections raised by Mr Harding, the position of the archdeacon is as follows.

Oh, well, all that’s nothing to the question; the question is, whether this intruding fellow, and a lot of cheating attorneys and pestilent dissenters, are to interfere with an arrangement which everyone knows is essentially just and serviceable to the Church.  Pray don’t let us be splitting hairs, and that amongst ourselves, or there’ll never be an end of the cause or the cost…..

What a question for a man to ask!  But it is like you – a child is not more innocent than you are in matters of business.  Can’t you see that if we tell them that no action will lie against you…that we will be putting weapons into their hands, and be teaching them how to cut our own throats?….

God bless my soul.  How odd is it that you will not see that all we are to do is to do nothing; why should we say anything about the founder’s will?  We are in possession; and we know that they are not in a position to put us out: surely that is enough for the present….

What about the abuse that Mr Harding is getting from the press?

You owe to the church of which you are a member and a minister to bear with this infliction, however severe it may be: you owe it to my father, who instituted you to support his rights; you owe it to those who preceded you to assert the legality of their position; you owe it to those who come after you, to maintain uninjured for them that which you received uninjured from others; and you owe to us all the unflinching assistance of perfect brotherhood in this matter, so that upholding one another we may support our great cause without blushing and without disgrace.

This Churchillian address is masterly writing by Trollope.  But the press gets wind of the point, and unloads on the Warden.

We understand that a plea has been set up which will be peculiarly revolting to the minds of English churchmen….Such a plea would doubtless be fair, if anyone questioned the daily wages of a bricklayer employed on the building, or the fee of the charwoman who cleans it; but we cannot envy the feeling of a clergyman of the Church of England who could allow such an argument to be put in his mouth.

If this plea be put forward, we trust Mr Harding will be forced as a witness to state the nature of his employment; the amount of work that he does; the income which he receives, and the source from whence he obtained his appointment.  We do not think he will receive much public sympathy to atone for the annoyance of such an examination.

The tormented Warden goes to see Sir Abraham.  Unless the Warden is assured about his legal entitlement to the money, he will resign.  ‘Sir Abraham began seriously to doubt his sanity.’

My dear sir, nobody now questions its justice.

Yes, Sir Abraham, one does question it – the most important of all witnesses against me – I question it myself.  God knows whether or no I love my daughter; but I would sooner that she and I would both beg, than that she should live in comfort on money which is truly the property of the poor…..I cannot boast of my conscience, when it required the violence of a public newspaper to awaken it; but now that it is awake, I must obey it.

Sir Abraham thinks this is ‘sheer Quixotism.’  The archbishop is in despair at the obduracy of his father in law.  (In the TV series, the bishop remarks that the Warden is prone to outbreaks of Christianity.)  But when the laws of England clashed with the conscience of the Warden, the conscience won.

There is no need to state the relevance of all this to weighty issues in our public forums (including issues before at least two royal commissions.)  But I may refer to some aspects of our laws.

First, it has always been the law in Australia, since it derived from a statute of Elizabeth I and the law arrived here with the first fleet, that an alienation of property made with intent to defraud creditors is voidable at the instance of any person prejudiced by it.  (This is now s.172 (1) of the Property Law Act, 1958.)  We don’t know how much time was spent by lawyers acting for James Hardie or some church entities looking at this law, but it is surprising how many people think that such provisions are only to be found in insolvency laws.  They’re wrong.  Like the laws of charity, they go back to the time of Good Queen Bess and the Spanish Armada.

Secondly, taking technical points that go against the merits or justice of the case may have forensic consequences.  In Charlick v Foley Brothers (1916) 21 CLR 249, Sir Isaac Isaacs tried an action about the sale of goods.  There was a substantive defence – a denial of any completed agreement.  There was also a technical defence – that the agreement was not evidenced in writing as required by a seventeenth century law called The Statute of Frauds.  It is worth setting out a lot of the judgment of the court.

The Statute of Frauds or its local equivalent is frequently the means of protecting a person from fraud or from the consequences of a transaction into which he has been hastily drawn.  It is couched in general terms, and applies no doubt, so far as legal effect is concerned, to such a bargain as the present.  But in practice a great mass of business rests upon the word of the parties, or upon quite informal memoranda, sufficiently understood by the parties, but not sufficient to satisfy the Statute of Frauds.  And in practice these understandings are faithfully recognized.  Where a great mercantile firm in substance invites its customers to dispense with the formalities of written contracts, and to rely upon the business honesty and fidelity of the firm to the pledged word of its responsible agents, it is distinctly dishonourable to repudiate a transaction so entered into upon the ground that the customer was simple enough to place reliance on anything short of a written undertaking duly signed.  And in my opinion it is not the duty of any legal adviser to compromise the honour and reputation of such a client, contracting in those circumstances, by placing on the record a defence of that nature without fully explaining it, and pointing out its full meaning and effect, and the probable consequences of the defence in case the event turns on a question of credibility.  If the law is explained and the true position indicated, then, if the client instructs his adviser to set up the strict legal defence, let it be done; but then the client runs the risk of being regarded as personally untrustworthy should the circumstances assume the appearance that they do in this case.

The facts before me rest so much upon the opinion I have to form of the personal integrity of the plaintiff and the defendants’ managing director, Mr. Foley, that I felt bound to specially ask Mr. Foley his own individual view of that particular defence in this case.

I was not surprised, but extremely gratified, to hear him as a business man express his own view that to succeed on that plea, if a definite bargain were really found to have been made, would not have been honourable. Had he said the contrary, I should have doubted his honesty in other directions. Even as it is, as he said he nevertheless left the matter to his advisers’ discretion, it to some extent weakened his other declaration. But on the whole I accept his personal statement as sincere.

[His Honor then dealt with the facts of the case, and decided them in favour of the defendants, holding that the contract made was conditional, and concluded:]

As the plaintiff fails on that substantial point, I see no reason to depart from the ordinary rule as to costs. If he had succeeded on this point, and had failed only on the defence of the Statute of Frauds, I should have made the direction as to costs accord with my view as to the propriety of that defence.

Those views might shock some legal or commercial people nowadays, but perhaps it is time they were given more game time.

Finally, lawyers should remember the general warning that Sir Owen Dixon gave about lawyers as gladiators – the type made for the archdeacon – and to recall their obligation to act in the overall interests of the client.

….I return to the basal principles which should govern the conduct of counsel.  He must keep steadily before him the duty of doing all he legitimately can in the true interests of his client….it is the true interests of his client that he must safeguard or consult and that is a more extensive duty than to use his best exertions in the conflict in the arena.  After all, he is his client’s counsel and the name signifies a good deal more than a forensic gladiator.  (Professional Conduct’ in Jesting Pilate, Melbourne, 1965, 134.)

My sense is that through either failure of nerve or want of professional judgment, too many lawyers forget these precepts, and strive to go along with the hymns nominated by the archdeacon – with ungodly consequences on all sides.

The 1982 BBC TV series The Barchester Chronicles was and is outstanding television.  The cast was what is called ‘stellar’ – Donald Pleasance, Nigel Hawthorne, Alan Rickman, Geraldine McEwan and Susan Hampshire.  It was based on two novels by Anthony Trollope about the affairs of the Church of England in a small cathedral town in Victorian England.

The first part comes from the novel The Warden.  Mr Harding (Donald Pleasance) is a saintly figure of a vicar.  By the grace of his bishop, he holds the position of Warden of a hospital for poor old men under a charitable trust that goes back to the middle ages.  The position is now worth 800 pounds a year – a very large amount of money then.  By contrast, the old inmates are not nearly as well off.  A crusading doctor and an ambitious journalist decide to take the issue on.  They tell the inmates that most of the money should go to them.  It all depends on the interpretation of the ancient will that set up the trust.

The good Mr Harding feels very uneasy about all this.  In today’s language, the ‘optics’ are not good.  But his archdeacon (Nigel Hawthorne), who is also his son in law, and the son of the bishop, is determined to uphold the privileges of the church.  When it comes to the legal defence of the church, money is no problem.  The archdeacon instructs the church’s solicitors to brief the nation’s leading lawyer, the Attorney-General Sir Abraham Haphazard to advise.  The resulting advice leads to the issue of the novel.  It is an issue that some of our clergy and their lawyers may well have benefited from pondering.

Since the legal action that the crusaders had launched related to a charity, the plaintiff may well have been the Crown in what is called a relator action.  We can put that to one side, because nothing turned on it.  But there was a legal issue about the defendants.  The action was against Mr Harding, who ran the hospital, and Mr Chadwick, who looked after the books.

As I follow it, Sir Abraham advised that the action would be likely to fail on two counts.  First, they had sued the wrong people.  The defendants should have been the church corporation, or the relevant chapter of the church – or ‘the bishop he thinks would be the surest shot; but even there we could plead that the bishop is only visitor, and that he has never made himself a consenting party to the performance of other duties.’  Secondly, the advice was that Messrs Harding and Chadwick were merely paid servants and that it was not up to the court to query their allotted stipend.

I may say I have some difficulty with both propositions.  As to the first, at the beginning of chapter 16, the action is described as ‘The Queen on behalf of the Wool-carders of Barchester v Trustees under the will of the late John Hiram.’  As to the second, as Mr Harding said immediately, ‘that can hardly be a just arrangement’ if he could allot what salary he liked to himself leaving the twelve poor inmates no redress.  Nevertheless, the book proceeds on the footing that the legal effect of this advice is that the action will very likely fail.

Well, you can imagine the Trumpian glee with which the archdeacon received this advice.  But most people, in or outside the law, would regard these points as technical or procedural rather than going to the merits of the case.  (They resemble the kind of point I was obliged to take in defending the most unpopular TV repair man Melbourne had seen – the problem was the people loathed him so much that they made errors in the way they trumpeted the justice of their cause.)

The author says of the archdeacon:  ‘Success was his object, and he was generally successful.’  Mr Chadwick was also a hard-head.  ‘The point is so nice, as Sir Abraham says, that you would force them into fifteen thousand pounds’ cost before they could bring it to an issue! And where’s that sum of money to come from?’  This is what some call the sporting theory of justice; what others call trial by ambush – the archdeacon is firmly against telling the other side of the trap they are walking into; and you don’t often hear what Americans call an 800 pound gorilla being as candid as that – although we all know of large corporations who will not blush to play the role of a bully.  (One newspaper made an art form of trying to beat plaintiffs into submission by taking arid points of pleading.)

To the objections raised by Mr Harding, the position of the archdeacon is as follows.

Oh, well, all that’s nothing to the question; the question is, whether this intruding fellow, and a lot of cheating attorneys and pestilent dissenters, are to interfere with an arrangement which everyone knows is essentially just and serviceable to the Church.  Pray don’t let us be splitting hairs, and that amongst ourselves, or there’ll never be an end of the cause or the cost…..

What a question for a man to ask!  But it is like you – a child is not more innocent than you are in matters of business.  Can’t you see that if we tell them that no action will lie against you…that we will be putting weapons into their hands, and be teaching them how to cut our own throats?….

God bless my soul.  How odd is it that you will not see that all we are to do is to do nothing; why should we say anything about the founder’s will?  We are in possession; and we know that they are not in a position to put us out: surely that is enough for the present….

What about the abuse that Mr Harding is getting from the press?

You owe to the church of which you are a member and a minister to bear with this infliction, however severe it may be: you owe it to my father, who instituted you to support his rights; you owe it to those who preceded you to assert the legality of their position; you owe it to those who come after you, to maintain uninjured for them that which you received uninjured from others; and you owe to us all the unflinching assistance of perfect brotherhood in this matter, so that upholding one another we may support our great cause without blushing and without disgrace.

This Churchillian address is masterly writing by Trollope.  But the press gets wind of the point, and unloads on the Warden.

We understand that a plea has been set up which will be peculiarly revolting to the minds of English churchmen….Such a plea would doubtless be fair, if anyone questioned the daily wages of a bricklayer employed on the building, or the fee of the charwoman who cleans it; but we cannot envy the feeling of a clergyman of the Church of England who could allow such an argument to be put in his mouth.

If this plea be put forward, we trust Mr Harding will be forced as a witness to state the nature of his employment; the amount of work that he does; the income which he receives, and the source from whence he obtained his appointment.  We do not think he will receive much public sympathy to atone for the annoyance of such an examination.

The tormented Warden goes to see Sir Abraham.  Unless the Warden is assured about his legal entitlement to the money, he will resign.  ‘Sir Abraham began seriously to doubt his sanity.’

My dear sir, nobody now questions its justice.

Yes, Sir Abraham, one does question it – the most important of all witnesses against me – I question it myself.  God knows whether or no I love my daughter; but I would sooner that she and I would both beg, than that she should live in comfort on money which is truly the property of the poor…..I cannot boast of my conscience, when it required the violence of a public newspaper to awaken it; but now that it is awake, I must obey it.

Sir Abraham thinks this is ‘sheer Quixotism.’  The archbishop is in despair at the obduracy of his father in law.  (In the TV series, the bishop remarks that the Warden is prone to outbreaks of Christianity.)  But when the laws of England clashed with the conscience of the Warden, the conscience won.

There is no need to state the relevance of all this to weighty issues in our public forums (including issues before at least two royal commissions.)  But I may refer to some aspects of our laws.

First, it has always been the law in Australia, since it derived from a statute of Elizabeth I and the law arrived here with the first fleet, that an alienation of property made with intent to defraud creditors is voidable at the instance of any person prejudiced by it.  (This is now s.172 (1) of the Property Law Act, 1958.)  We don’t know how much time was spent by lawyers acting for James Hardie or some church entities looking at this law, but it is surprising how many people think that such provisions are only to be found in insolvency laws.  They’re wrong.  Like the laws of charity, they go back to the time of Good Queen Bess and the Spanish Armada.

Secondly, taking technical points that go against the merits or justice of the case may have forensic consequences.  In Charlick v Foley Brothers (1916) 21 CLR 249, Sir Isaac Isaacs tried an action about the sale of goods.  There was a substantive defence – a denial of any completed agreement.  There was also a technical defence – that the agreement was not evidenced in writing as required by a seventeenth century law called The Statute of Frauds.  It is worth setting out a lot of the judgment of the court.

The Statute of Frauds or its local equivalent is frequently the means of protecting a person from fraud or from the consequences of a transaction into which he has been hastily drawn.  It is couched in general terms, and applies no doubt, so far as legal effect is concerned, to such a bargain as the present.  But in practice a great mass of business rests upon the word of the parties, or upon quite informal memoranda, sufficiently understood by the parties, but not sufficient to satisfy the Statute of Frauds.  And in practice these understandings are faithfully recognized.  Where a great mercantile firm in substance invites its customers to dispense with the formalities of written contracts, and to rely upon the business honesty and fidelity of the firm to the pledged word of its responsible agents, it is distinctly dishonourable to repudiate a transaction so entered into upon the ground that the customer was simple enough to place reliance on anything short of a written undertaking duly signed.  And in my opinion it is not the duty of any legal adviser to compromise the honour and reputation of such a client, contracting in those circumstances, by placing on the record a defence of that nature without fully explaining it, and pointing out its full meaning and effect, and the probable consequences of the defence in case the event turns on a question of credibility.  If the law is explained and the true position indicated, then, if the client instructs his adviser to set up the strict legal defence, let it be done; but then the client runs the risk of being regarded as personally untrustworthy should the circumstances assume the appearance that they do in this case.

The facts before me rest so much upon the opinion I have to form of the personal integrity of the plaintiff and the defendants’ managing director, Mr. Foley, that I felt bound to specially ask Mr. Foley his own individual view of that particular defence in this case.

I was not surprised, but extremely gratified, to hear him as a business man express his own view that to succeed on that plea, if a definite bargain were really found to have been made, would not have been honourable. Had he said the contrary, I should have doubted his honesty in other directions. Even as it is, as he said he nevertheless left the matter to his advisers’ discretion, it to some extent weakened his other declaration. But on the whole I accept his personal statement as sincere.

[His Honor then dealt with the facts of the case, and decided them in favour of the defendants, holding that the contract made was conditional, and concluded:]

As the plaintiff fails on that substantial point, I see no reason to depart from the ordinary rule as to costs. If he had succeeded on this point, and had failed only on the defence of the Statute of Frauds, I should have made the direction as to costs accord with my view as to the propriety of that defence.

Those views might shock some legal or commercial people nowadays, but perhaps it is time they were given more game time.

Finally, lawyers should remember the general warning that Sir Owen Dixon gave about lawyers as gladiators – the type made for the archdeacon – and to recall their obligation to act in the overall interests of the client.

….I return to the basal principles which should govern the conduct of counsel.  He must keep steadily before him the duty of doing all he legitimately can in the true interests of his client….it is the true interests of his client that he must safeguard or consult and that is a more extensive duty than to use his best exertions in the conflict in the arena.  After all, he is his client’s counsel and the name signifies a good deal more than a forensic gladiator.  (Professional Conduct’ in Jesting Pilate, Melbourne, 1965, 134.)

My sense is that through either failure of nerve or want of professional judgment, too many lawyers forget these precepts, and strive to go along with the hymns nominated by the archdeacon – with ungodly consequences on all sides.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s