A Day in the Four Courts, 1890

From Irish Society (Dublin), 8 November 1890:



For those who cannot spare time for a corporeal visit to the Temple of Justice, let them come with me now in spirit, and I will be their guide, philosopher, and friend in an imaginary personally-conducted tour through the noble pile of buildings in Inns Quay, which forms the material home and domicile of Irish law.

Let us be at the courts by a quarter to eleven of the clock, and take up our position in the great hall, which is the centre of the main building, and round which are the four chambers formerly occupied by the ancient independent Courts of Chancery, Queen’s Bench, Exchequer and Common Pleas.  Since the abolition (a couple of years ago) of the Common Pleas division of the High Court of Justice these four chambers have been labelled “Chancery,”, “Queen’s Bench No 1,” “Queen’s Bench No. 2,” and “Exchequer.”   The judges are not sitting yet, so we will, for the present, confine our attention to the crowd of people in the Hall.

What a motley crowd it is! Quite impossible to make an exhaustive analysis of the men and women that compose it! But I will mention a few types and classes that are certain to be represented, being constant constituents of all court crowds.

Well, first there are the professional men, barristers and attorneys, who have business (more or less) to attend to.  The barristers themselves are a motley collection.  There are prosperous dignified Queen’s Counsel, and Queen’s Counsel blighted by their ‘silk,’ or past their work, or out of favour with the public, looking with jealous eyes upon the rising juniors.  There are leading juniors, and dilettante brief-holders in silk and in stuff, and the large and varied classes of the briefless.  Briefless however, or full of briefs, every barrister in Dublin comes down daily to the courts, for which, no matter how cruel they may have been to him, he nevertheless maintains a faithful affection.  The barrister, more than any other man, has need of the virtue of patience, and patience once acquired never deserts him, but remains with him to the end, and prompts him to hope against hope, and despairing to hope again.  There are very few pessimists at the Bar; for only the most ridiculous optimists survive the third year.

The people holding black bags in their hands are connected with the solicitors’ branch of the profession, being either themselves full-sworn solicitors, or the apprentices or clerks of others.  They too present many varieties and nice degrees of position and importance.  There is the ‘highly respectable and eminent solicitor’ as he is referred to by the junior whom he has not employed, but who has expectations of briefs in that quarter.  The ‘highly respectable’ solicitor is neatly dressed, wears an irreproachable hat, is on familiar terms with the leading Q.C.’s and even nods to the judges.  He condescends majestically to the junior, whom he occasionally briefs.  He does a large business in the Equity Courts, and his instructions are generally taken from landlords and other highly-respectable people of means.   Then there is the ordinary unpretending Dublin solicitor, who acts for all sorts and conditions of men, and has great faith in one particular Q.C., and one particular junior – men, often, of mediocre ability and little practice – whom he always employs, except when his clients won’t let him.   There is the Country Solicitor, in a suit of tweed and brown billy-cock hat, up in town for an important case and a little spree in the metropolis at the expense of rustic litigants.  There are nervous fidgeting people, endeavouring to hold conference with barristers; clients anxious for the fate of their suits, and fully impressed, each one, that his is the only case in court to-day.  The Counsel (who has his guineas in his pocket) scolds his interlocutor ungratefully, refuses to listen to him, and hurries off to the Library, where the discomfited client can follow him no further.

Other representatives of the general public in the hall are witnesses attending on their subpoena; some sullen and discontented at being brought away from their business; others, on the contrary (such as civil servants and clerks) only too delighted to have a day off.  Jurors, too, in their hundreds are rushing about from court to court to ascertain what particular judge has been threatening to fine them £10 each for not being present when the panel was called.  Then there are, besides policemen and tip-staffs, and court-keepers and attendances, a few of the process-serving community prowling about for hire.  There are bag-men and bag-women who, having brought down the barristers’ bags at ten o’clock, will sit on the pedestals of the statues and pillars till it is time to take them home again at five.  Some women earn a livelihood by selling the Daily Express and Freeman’s Journal; others, by retailing saffron-cakes and currant-buns to the busier members of the bar whose press of work will not permit of a more elaborate repast.

Even now it is an animated scene in the Hall of the Four Courts, 11 o’clock in the early and busy part of the sittings.  But time was when the place was literally packed with barristers and attorneys, many of them full of briefs and money.  Compared with those times these are poor indeed, and the Four Courts are now unquestionably the least congested district in Ireland.

The hands of the clock show that it is now eleven, and the Judges should be on the Bench at that hour.  But, trust me, you have a quarter of an hour to spare still, for their lordships are never punctual.  So we may go down and inspect those gloomy subterranean chambers to which the ‘counsellors’ descend to dress for court.  There you will see hundreds of tin band-boxes containing the wigs of the barristers, whose names are inscribed ‘So-and-so, So-and-so Esq.’ in golden letters – for barristers are gentlemen, and entitled to the ‘Esq’ by the common law, unlike solicitors, who depend for that distinction upon an Act of Parliament.  The Q.C.’s go through a more complete costuming than juniors, being obliged to wear a peculiar coat of black dress-cloth, elegantly braided, collarless, and cut away from the first button.  In the dressing-rooms, all members of the Bar are equal – first come being first served; the Attorney-General claiming no precedence over the rawest junior.  For the Bar is, in many ways, a veritable democracy.”

When the Four Courts originally opened, a regulation was passed and published in the newspapers specifically precluding the wearing hats in the Round Hall, but it did not last very long! Today, hats, jurors, bag-persons, newspaper and currant-bun sellers are long-gone, QC’s have become SC’s, and the so-called ‘highly respectable’ solicitor is now more often than not a partnership based in a corporate palace.

Though there are still rising juniors, worried clients, eager and reluctant witnesses, and – perhaps to a greater extent than there should properly be – involuntarily and unjustly briefless barristers, there are also women practitioners and judges, cases in Irish, and the flag of a Republic flying above the courts – things which would have been dismissed as mere fancies, or at best vague hopes, by the members of the crowd described above.

What change will there be in this magical place, 120 years, or even 20 years on? 

Every journey towards a new and better reality starts with a dream sincerely held, and the determination to implement it. 

How would you – practitioner or layperson, workaholic or dilettante, because the courts belong to all citizens – like the Hall of the Four Courts to appear in the future?

And what are you going to do about it?

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Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

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