Open main menu

CHAPTER XII.

CIVIL AND CRIMINAL LAW.

THE legal profession forms a very important and numerous caste in Colymbia, and as the people are very litigious, there is plenty of what we would call civil business transacted in the courts. The laws have been enacted by the legislature at various periods, but whether from accident or design, have usually been so clumsily worded that their precise meaning is known to none. Every law requires some case to be tried in order to determine its meaning. Such cases are referred to as precedents in the event of future cases to which the laws are applicable being tried, and it is the great aim of the lawyers on either side to deny or contend for the applicability of the precedent to their client's case, according as it is made for or against him. When no precedent applicable to the case in hand is recorded, the judge proceeds to try the case by the relative weight of the arguments on each side. He has before him a nicely adjusted balance, one scale of which is for the plaintiff, the other for the defendant.

When the counsel for the plaintiff is about to speak, the judge asks him solemnly, "How many arguments have you for your client?" The counsel tells the number, which must not exceed twenty. The judge has then to determine the weight of each argument separately, as it is delivered by the advocate; and he places in the scale a material weight corresponding to what he judges its value. He has a whole heap of these weights beside him, ranging from a drachm to a pound. If he has any difficulty in determining the weight of any particular argument, he consults with one or more of his brother judges, with respect to the material weight that should be placed in the scale. When the advocate for the plaintiff has concluded his pleading, the plaintiff's scale is more or less filled with the weights of different values, corresponding to what the judge deems the respective weights of the arguments. He pursues the same course with the arguments of the defendant's counsel; and, according as the one or the other scale inclines at the end of the pleadings, the cause is determined for the plaintiff or for the defendant. If, at the end of the pleadings, the scales prove to be equally balanced, the cause is determined by hazard. The judge puts his hand into a bag containing an equal number of black and white balls, and, according as he draws forth a black or white ball, the one party or the other gains the suit. The result is duly chronicled in a large ledger, kept for the purpose; and this forms a precedent for other similar cases.

As owing to the very equal cleverness of the advocates on either side, it usually happened that the arguments on both sides were equally balanced, and the ultimate decision had to be made by hazard, clients began to perceive that they might as well save the legal expenses, and decide their own causes, by agreeing to toss up for themselves, without employing the costly machinery of the law courts. This private settlement of causes was, however, so much against the interests of the lawyers, that they discouraged it as much as possible; and the judges themselves disapproved of it, as causes thus privately determined could not serve as precedents. The legal profession, consequently, tried hard to induce the legislature to pass an act making the private determination of causes by hazard not only illegal, but punishable as a misdemeanour; but hitherto they have not succeeded in their efforts; and many cases are thus irregularly determined to the great disgust of the whole legal profession. Nevertheless, there is always a great number of litigants who prefer that their cases should come before the regular courts; so that, as I said before, there is plenty of occupation for the lawyers in civil cases.

Criminal cases, such as robberies, assaults, forgeries, murders, and the like, are conducted in a different manner. The head of the police in the district where the crime was committed, is entrusted with the collection of the evidence. He is generally an intelligent person, and the way he sets about his work is peculiar. He first of all forms a theory as to the commission of the crime, and he sets his officials to get up evidence, all with the view of substantiating his à priori theory. All evidence that rims counter to the theory is set aside as irrelevant, and whatever seems in any way to corroborate it is carefully collected and methodically arranged. When the chief of the police deems his case complete, he brings it before the judge in court along with the person incriminated. Lawyers are engaged on either side, and the trial commences. The advocate engaged against the criminal makes a long speech, in which he presents all the facts and surmises that tell against the prisoner in the strongest light, embellishing his discourse with all the flowers of eloquence at his command; when the evidence is defective, supplying its place with invective, insinuations and all sorts of ingenious arguments, to show the antecedent probability of the prisoner being the author of the crime. The prisoner's advocate does his best to whitewash his client, slurring over the strong points against him, and demolishing the arguments of his opponent, when these are unsupported by sufficient evidence. If he succeeds in satisfying the judge that the evidence and arguments against his client are not conclusive, the prisoner is acquitted, and nothing further is done; for the chief of the police, by whom the case is got up, relies exclusively on his theory; and when that is proved erroneous, he never takes the trouble to form another; so the real criminal escapes scot free. In fact, it is a Colymbian maxim that two persons cannot be tried for the same offence.

If, on the other hand, the evidence brought against the prisoner is irresistible, his advocate makes such a piteous appeal in his favour, offering all sorts of excuses for him on the ground of his youth, his age, his poverty or his wealth, his want of education or his vast intellectual acquirements, his miserable bachelor condition or his happy married state with a fond wife and loving children, his usefulness to the state or his absolute uselessness, that if he does not move the judge, he acts so powerfully on the sensibilities of the public that the prisoner, though possibly a thorough rogue, becomes an object of universal interest. His looks, his demeanour, his every action are recorded in the newspapers. He is made the hero of the hour, and every circumstance of his life, whether real or fictitious, becomes the subject of general conversation. Petitions and deputations without number incessantly pour in upon the minister of justice, demanding his pardon or at least the remission of his sentence. Such is the weight of public opinion brought to bear upon the minister that he generally yields to the solicitations of the humanitarians, and either liberates the prisoner or lets him off with an insignificant punishment.

The rarity of crime in this curiously constituted society, and the great amount of leisure of the people, conspire to give an undue interest in the criminal, and in place of exciting an excessive horror in the public, rather lead them to doubt the possibility of the crime unless it be proved to the utmost degree of certainty. Hence the great amount of sympathy always raised on behalf of the criminal. Every case is as it were tried over again by the public, and as a large section of the people are convinced that every case is got up by the police and that the condemned prisoner is really innocent, the pressure they exercise on the minister of justice proves irresistible, and the object of their compassion is spared the punishment he perhaps richly merits.