BENCH AND BAR.
TO those who live, as we do, in a revolutionary age, it is an immense consolation to find that some institutions are still founded on a rock. The integrity of the United Kingdom may soon be a thing of the past ; the Established Church, in the opinion of many, is already tottering, and must shortly fall ; a powerful political party looks darkly at pro- perty in land ; a " Federation," not quite so powerful, would include all private property in one and the same condemnation. But on the summit—if it has a summit—of the Clerkenwell Sessions-House, the sacred flame of the Constitution still burns strong and bright. Amid the crash of Empires and systems the Assistant-Judge sits unmoved and impeccable. In common with his brethren, whose high prerogative he has been singled out by fate to illustrate and confirm, he can do no wrong. He is the legal heir of all the ages and of both hemispheres. A great American Judge has asserted his privileges by anticipa- tion, the Supreme Court of the United States has magnified his office beforehand.
Those who have not read the action of " Woodgate v. Edlin," which was tried before Mr. Baron Huddleston on Monday and Tuesday last, may think that we are using the language of exaggeration. Consequently, as we have ourselves derived so much comfort from the law then laid down, we will save our readers the trouble of hunting out the facts. In them- selves, they are few and simple. In August, 1883, one Blanche Coulson was tried for stealing a ring belonging to a law student. She was undefended, and the barristers in Court became interested in her behalf to the extent of £1 3s. 6d., in consideration of which one of their number undertook her case, and obtained a verdict. Before this, however, there had been a good deal of talk among the Bar during the adjournment for luncheon as to what could be done for the girl in the event of her being acquitted. She had run away, it seemed, from her parents, but was willing to return to them if the money—she had none herself—could be found to send her home. Mr. Woodgate, the plaintiff in the action, kindly offered to give a sovereign if some decent person could be found to be responsible for laying it out. It was necessary, in the first instance, to make some inquiries of the girl herself ; and at the close of the trial, her counsel, Mr. Griffiths, directed his clerk to give her a note containing his address in chambers, and the hours between which she might call there. This was handed to the prisoner by the clerk, who added, of his own motion, that Mr. Woodgate would see her at that place and time. When the trial was over, Mr. Griffiths told the Assistant-Judge that a gentleman had kindly found the funds to restore the girl to her parents. Meantime, how- ever, by some unexplained agency, the note had found its way from the prisoner's hands to those of the Judge, and Mr. Edlin now handed it down to Mr. Griffiths, with a request to be told its meaning. Mr. Griffiths thereupon stepped forward and stated the facts to the Assistant-Judge in a little more detail, adding that it was Mr. Woodgate who had kindly offered to find the money. By this time, however, Mr. Edlin's suspicions had been aroused, and into the seemingly innocent words, "C. S. Griffiths, 6 Cloisters, Temple, between 2 and 4," he read a great deal more of unexpressed meaning. He had somehow come to think that Mr. Woodgate had not only found the sovereign to take the girl to her parents, but also the .R1 3s. 6d. paid to the counsel for the defence ; and when with this he coupled the clerk's unprompted remark that Mr. Woodgate would meet her at Mr. Griffiths's chambers, the whole course of a supposed intrigue and assignation lay open before him. At the moment, however, neither Bench nor Bar quite rose to the height of the situation. To the information that Mr. Woodgate had offered to provide the funds—to take the girl home, as was the fact, for a quite different purpose, as Mr. Edlin thought—the majesty of justice only answered, Oh ! I can't have anything to do with that." And Mr. Griffiths, on his side, permitted himself to reply, "Nobody asked you l" — words quite in keeping with the milkmaid to whom they are
assigned in song, but scarcely consistent with the dignity of virtuous and outraged advocacy.
Here the matter might have dropped, had Mr. Edlin been superior to the temptation of writing letters. Instead of this, he must needs write two letters to Mr. Griffiths, and in each of them, Mr. Woodgate, when he came to read them, detected a libel on himself. As we know now, a Judge cannot write anything libellous,—he is protected from that danger by his official impeccability. But Mr. Woodgate, regarding Mr. Edlin as a common person, and holding, not unnaturally, that the letters contained imputations on his professional and private character, at once set to work to obtain redress. First of all he turned to the Bar mess, but the Bar mess could only give him barren sympathy. Then he tried Lord Selborne, the then Chancellor, but Lord Selborne only replied that the case was not one in which he could interfere. Next, Mr. Woodgate wrote to the Home Secretary, but the Home Secretary was as powerless as the Chancellor. After that, he laid the case before the Benchers of the Inner Temple, and they, in their turn, said it was one in which they could take no part. Finally, he wrote to Mr. Edlin himself, from whom, by way of variety, he got no answer at all. And then, when all professional help had failed him, he threw himself on a Jury of his countrymen, and asked them to give him damages for libel. Before the defendant's case had been opened, Mr. Baron Huddleston spoke his mind very freely. There was not, he said, a shadow of foundation for the suspicions which Mr. Edlin had entertained of Mr. Woodgate. He had never put himself forward in the marked way which Mr. Edlin sup- posed. His relations with the girl began and ended in the readiness to find a sovereign to take her home ; and the intimation that he would be at Mr. Griffiths's chambers at the time named in the note was a fancy addition of Mr. Griffiths's clerk. Yet, should the trial be pressed to a conclusion, Mr. Baron Huddleston felt that he would have no choice but to nonsuit the plaintiff. A Judge cannot be removed from the Bench except by the Crown, in pursuance of a joint address from both Houses of Parliament. A Judge is irresponsible for what he does judicially, even if he does it maliciously. Other- wise, according to Chancellor Kent, Judges, " instead of being venerable before the public, would become contemptible." We are not quite sure that we follow Chancellor Kent's reasoning, since the spectacle of a Judge acting maliciously and protected from unpleasant consequences by the sacredness of his office, would hardly now-a-days be held to be venerable. Bat the contingency of a Judge acting maliciously in the discharge of his judicial functions is so remote, that it may quite safely be left to be dealt with by Parliament when it arises. Happily, in this case, there was no doubt that Mr. Edlin had acted under a complete misapprehension of the facts ; and though we cannot but think his apology might have come a little earlier, it was all that could be desired when it came. He expressed, through his counsel, the greatest regret for the pain and annoyance which his unfounded suspicions had inflicted on Mr. Woodgate ; and as Mr. Woodgate, also through his counsel, accepted the apology in the same spirit, all was at once peaceful. The dignity of the Bench was saved by the reiterated declaration by the Court that judges are irresponsible ; the honour of the Bar was saved by the happy demonstration that even an irresponsible Judge is not necessarily impenitent.
Yet, if we may venture to say so, the judgment leaves one not unimportant point in entire obscurity. What constitutes a judicial act ? When does a Judge cease to be a Judge, and become once more a man ? In this case, the libels complained of formed no part of Mr. Edlin's judgment. They were not delivered from the bench, or reported in the customary way. It is true they were contained in letters relating to, and the occasion for them had been furnished by, a case which had come before him in the ordinary course of his duty. But is it not rather a needless extension of judicial irresponsibility to say that every letter a Judge may write about a case which he has tried is as sacred as though it had been said in the course of his judgment? Might Mr. Edlin, for example, have written to the Times, and said the same things about Mr. Woodgate that he said in his letters to Mr. Griffiths ? Might he have made the ease the text of a magazine article ? Could either of these things be said to be done judicially Yet, if they could not, how do they differ from what Mr. Edlin actually did ? If the case had gone on, Mr. Woodgate's counsel would, no doubt, have put these points before the Court. As it was, they do not seem to have occurred to the Judge, and for that reason his remarks are less decisive than they may at first appear.