Sitting Long Hours

Now that our Ministry of Justice is yet again canvassing the idea of courts sitting unsocial hours, I am indebted to my Canadian friend John de P Wright for bringing together these memories of trials in days gone by, which Sir Frank McKinnon included in his book “On Circuit” (published in 1940).

“The feats of endurance of judges, jurors, and counsel in the old days are almost incredible.  Luncheon as a meal was only invented about 1820.  And no Court ever adjourned at midday.  It was true indeed that “wretches hang that jurymen may dine”.

Lord Campbell when at the bar in August 1815 said:

“We finished at Gloucester . . . I was nearly knocked up.  One day we went into Court at 8 in the morning, and adjourned at half past two the next morning.”

In March 1819 he writes from Shrewsbury:

“On Friday I was in court occupied from eight in the morning till half past one on Saturday morning.  I had then to sit down to read a brief in a murder, attended with very complicated circumstances, which I had to state to the jury at eight the same morning.  I was hardly in bed.  But I am not at all knocked up.”

And in April 1832 he writes from Gloucester,

“I am very wretched here from the slowness of the judges. . .   All that I can do is to make them come into court at eight in the morning, and sit until midnight.”

Sir John Taylor Coleridge records in his diary that in October 1823 the jury acquitted a prisoner at Quarter Sessions after being locked up, without food or fire, for 17 hours.

In August 1830 a trial at Salisbury ended at 2:30 a.m.

In March 1845 he writes:

“My Exeter work was very heavy.  Last Monday I sat 12 hours, and on Tuesday 19.  I went in at 8 a.m. and sate till 3 a.m., summing up with as much freshness, and perhaps more perspicuity than I had done in any other case at the Assizes.”

This last was no unique occasion.

  • In March 1832, for instance, Sir James Alan Park sat in a civil case at Winchester from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m.
  • At the trial of Lord Cochrane before Lord Ellenborough on 8 June 1814 the Court sat from 9 a.m. until 3 a.m. next morning, and then adjourned for seven hours until 10 a.m.
  • As late as 1850 Lord Denman speaks of leaving Court on a Saturday night at 10p.m. “after thirteen hours of trial”.

And, finally:

James Stewart was tried as an accomplice in the Appin murder, at Inverary, in September 1752, before the Duke of Argyll, as Lord Justice General, Lord Elchies, and Lord Kilkerran, with a jury of fifteen, of whom eleven were Campbells.

The court sat uninterruptedly from 6 a.m. on Friday, 22 September, until between 7 and 8 a.m. on Sunday, 24 September, that is for 49 or 50 hours.

I often felt physically and emotionally drained after sitting between 10.30 and 4.15 9with a break for lunch) in a difficult murder trial.  My judicial forbears were clearly made of sterner stuff.


Perhaps these memories should not be drawn to the attention of the office-bound bureaucrats who seek greater productivity from the courts.




2 thoughts on “Sitting Long Hours

  1. Laura Hoyano

    Of course in those far-off days women could not be barristers or judges, and men did not regard themselves as having paternal or other caring responsibilities. And perhaps there was no long wait to see one’s client arrive from a distant prison each morning for conferences in the cells before the hearing started. And clearly no regard was had to the personal lives of, and demands on, the jurors, much less their own attention span!


  2. I have described elsewhere on this site how in those days the high court judge used to travel from one county town to the next in order to preside at the assizes, and how the Bar – and other hangers on – used to travel the same route and stay in a local hostelry until it was time to move on again. Their clients would be in the local lock up, and they were not permitted to give evidence at their trial. And the commission of the judge was “general gaol delivery” – to empty the gaols (often by executions or transportation), not to fill them. It was a very different world.


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