The Rehabilitation of William Garrow

It is interesting to consider how William Garrow has returned to prominence – much of this to do with the success of the prime-time BBC 1 series of 2010 (and now Series Two). The mystery about why he was airbrushed from the general accounts of the development of English law is something of a whodunnit in itself. Maybe Garrow’s face didn’t fit, he was from the wrong side of the tracks socially speaking, or was it his later defection to the Establishment and relative failure as a politician compared to his early success as a radical lawyer? Maybe there is a lesson or moral here – stick to what you are good at.

Garrow first came to my attention in 2005 when John Hostettler included a chapter or so about Garrow’s contribution to forensic development in a book he had written called Fighting for Justice. I was the publisher and house-editor and became thoroughly fascinated by the story. So many books regurgitate the same old story (if dressed up in a novel way) that it is always exciting to happen on something new. I cannot say that I was wholly convinced by the idea of including quite so much about this unknown advocate in a wider work and I may have said to John at the time that Garrow seemed to be getting more than his fair share of English legal and social history. But we kept most of it in if I remember correctly. It was these chapters I think that triggered the interest that led the BBC to Garrow’s Law, but by which time John had embarked on an altogether more ambitious project – an entire book about this hitherto obscure individual.

Anyone who takes the trouble to find out will learn that John has written a small library of legal and biographical works about great lawyers and jurists. However, these are mostly well-known people, at least in legal circles – so well-known that some are known simply by their first names: Coke, Hale, Brougham, Beccaria. Here then was an upstart looking to join a Premier League side.

But I had no hesitation in taking on John’s new work – it took just a split second for me to tell him that I was happy to do this on the basis that he was writing a regular supply of viable texts and if this one only made its way that would be quid pro quo for other books that did attract broader interest. That decision was helped along by the news that Richard Braby, Garrow’s descendant in America was happy to join as a co-author – but I still did not expect much more than a worthy tome to grace the bookshelves of a few hundred die-hard enthusiasts. That was about it, Garrow might be an acquired taste but he would at least be in all the best law libraries and collections.

Both John and Richard then are to be credited with boringing Garrow back from the far and dusty corner of the cellar of history. To play some part in this has been something of a privilege. Others have written on Garrow to be sure, articles and short contributions and not all of these commentators agree with the assessment that Garrow is the missing link in the story of adversary trial. Indeed, adversary trial is today somewhat contentious especially with those of a restorative persuasion or who see conflict resolution as the key to a better system of justice. I find myself having to justify producing a collection of books on restorative justice whilst at the same time encouraging John to argue the merits of the kind of trial which Garrow gave us, one of largely out-and-out opposition to the case for ‘the other side’. The viewing public seem to know which they prefer – having taken Garrow to their hearts – and the adversary system and drama go hand-in-hand especially when the underdog wins. It is little different I guess to publishing a book by an ex-offender one day and a judge or chief of police the next. And it has to be remembered that where there is unavoidable disagreement in a case it is Garrow who forged the early templates for the rules of evidence and criminal procedure.

Garrow’s return to prominence then owes as much to John and Richard as it does to diversity of outlook. It was also a pleasant surprise when an obscure project took off beyond all expectations. Already English legal history is being revised or at the least revisted. Garrow’s rehabilitation has brought about an irreversible change in the nature of the debate about the English method of trial.

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