I am rather entranced by the 1890s ‘Our Lawyer’ column in the Weekly Mail, which can be found in the Welsh Newspapers Online database. Welsh Newspapers Online – Home (library.wales) In it, an anonymous barrister gives short bursts of advice to people who write in under pseudonyms – several of them per week. This process seems interesting to me, in that we see a barrister interacting directly with the public (I may be wrong, but I thought that that would have been frowned upon at this period – a solicitor should have been involved between client and counsel). ‘Our Lawyer’ often finds fault with the information received – it is insufficient, or confused – and often points the correspondent towards consulting a solicitor, so I suppose he was not really taking work away from them overall. He also stands back from specific practical advice about whether to litigate, e.g. saying ‘We never give estimates of costs’ – to M.E. (Merthyr), enquiring about the possibility of bringing an action for the ‘seduction’ of her daughter.[i]
There is a great deal which I imagine would be worth investigating, in the advice sought and given. This ranges from property law, through employment law, divorce and defamation, to the odd bit of crime, or company law. The names chosen by the correspondents are sometimes delightfully whimsical – one 1891 column alone features the literary (‘Banquo’), the mundane (‘Enquirer G’; ‘A.A.R.’), the abstract (‘Consistency;, ‘Lover of Fair Play’), the legally suggestive (‘Next of Kin’), the self-satisfied (‘A Business Man’), the classical (‘Felix’), the folksy Welsh (‘Shon Bach’), the unimaginative Welsh (‘Cymro’) as well as poor old ‘One in a Fog’, who wants a divorce.[ii]
I rather like the fact that one correspondent asking about payments towards the maintenance of his ‘illegitimate’ child (and attempting to get out of them) took on the name ‘Bastard (Tondu)’ (rather more appropriate for him than for the poor kid).[iii] And I admit I may have sniggered at the pseudonym W.A.P. (Haverfordwest).[iv] He wasn’t to know that would seem very rude in 2020-21, I suppose.
‘Our Lawyer’ is usually fairly matter-of-fact, but can’t seem to keep back the sarcasm at times, e.g. telling ‘G.B.’ of Cardiff, who was asking about adoption (not legally recognised in the jurisdiction at this point) that his enquiry ‘shows more zeal than discretion’,[v] telling ‘Fair Play (Llanelli)’ that he has ‘got rather mixed’,[vi] and suggesting to more than one unmarried woman that she is rather lucky to get a financial settlement from the father of her child.[vii]
Other bits of snippy, judgey or critical comment include:
‘Kindness is wasted upon such a man as the defendant has proved himself to be’ – replying to ‘Memo’ (Cardiff).[viii]
‘He must be a very mean man to ask for them’ – advising ‘Young’ not to give up her wedding and engagement rings to her husband.[ix]
‘Why did not ‘Commercial (Newport)’ look after his luggage at Tredegar? That is what any ordinary traveller would have done.’[x] Not much sympathy for this careless correspondent!
… telling ‘Justice’, in a case headed SEPARATION ORDER, that he has no right to take away from his wife gifts to her from her friends, and adding that ‘He appears to have queer ideas of justice.’[xi]
There is certainly some lack of sympathy with women, as in the in 1891 entry – presumably somewhat after R v Jackson -telling ‘J.T. (Newport)’ that he has no power of making his wife live with him, ‘The letter he wrote to his wife was a very injudicious one. To threaten an obstinate woman that, unless she returns home she will be fetched, is certainly not the way to get her back. He had better try persuasion.’[xii]
I do warm to him when he is having a go at men out to rip off women, though, particularly in the following paragraph: ‘A SELFISH LOVER. ’Careful Boy’ (we charitably omit the address) might have a settlement prepared for execution before his marriage is celebrated. [tells him how to do it]… But he should moderate his desires as to the division of the lady’s fortune. His proposal is simply monstrous, and if he should insist upon having half her fortune while he is in a state of impecuniosity, we hope she will throw him over before it is too late.’[xiii] Slightly going beyond the brief of legal advice there, O.L.?!
Anyway – it’s fabulous stuff. I am not qualified to do it, but if nobody has ever written a paper or a thesis on this topic, then they definitely should.
Amongst other things I’d like to know would be:
(i) Who was ‘Our Lawyer’?
(ii) How would this procedure have been seen by the profession?
(iii) How did ‘ordinary’ people perceive this service/project (It has a vague resemblance to modern pro bono or Law Clinic work, doesn’t it?). What does it tell us about their views and hopes of, and attitudes to, law?
(iv) Since I am sure this was not a one-off, what similar columns existed in other parts of the press?
I will end this with a personal favourite, from 1891:
‘HUSBAND AND WIFE. ‘J.M.A., who has been married for more than 40 years, and whose wife has recently refused to sleep with him on account of the coldness of his feet, is advised that he has no legal remedy. He had better try persuasion, and have a hot water bottle to put his feet on.’[xiv] Very much Team Mrs J.M.A. – the cold feet thing sounds like a useful excuse to me!