Garrow’s London was a vast cosmopolitan city with a small central area that was alive with criminal activity. Despite the wealth concentrated in the West End of London the artisans and the poor of the city generally lived in insalubrious and crime-ridden areas so graphically described later by Dickens. Most of them were law-abiding but there were criminal districts where schools of particular crimes were concentrated including shoplifting, coining and horse stealing. At the time many goods which are mass produced and cheap today were made by hand and were expensive to buy. These included handkerchiefs, clothing, pots and pans, goods made of wood or cast iron, rope and spoons and forks all of which were frequently stolen and easily sold.
The assize court for London and Middlesex was the Old Bailey where the trials of men and women charged with felony were conducted and from its drama we get a clear flavour of life in the metropolis of both rogues and innocents. In an atmosphere that resembled a four-ale bar in an English pub, with the judge, jury and by-standers all joining in the mêlée, men, women and children were often sent to the gallows or transported for stealing money or goods worth as little as twelve pence. And for other offences, all of which today would be dealt with in the magistrates’ courts.
As is shown in the book Sir William Garrow: His Life, Times and Fight for Justice, Garrow, and, following his example, other barristers gradually introduced into the Old Bailey, and then on to the world stage, adversary trial. This enabled defence lawyers to champion prisoners and their rights as well as capture the courtroom. It was an uphill struggle since they were not allowed to fully represent prisoners but only question prosecutors and their witnesses. The prosecutors were often thief-takers who received a substantial bounty from the government for every defendant convicted by their evidence. But by aggressive cross-examination, particularly of the thief-takers, Garrow was able in ten years not only to pioneer the introduction of adversary trial but to secure the previously unknown presumption of innocence, and criminal rules of evidence such as hearsay that prevented the use of harmful second-hand evidence.
Hence today we have in Britain, the United States and many other countries a system whereby lawyers champion opposing causes, enhance human rights and enable citizens to take a stand against the power of the state and vested interests.
In this section of The Garrow Society website will appear some examples of trials in which Garrow appeared and helped establish this adversary system of criminal procedure.