Tag Archives: racism

Legal History, Slavery, Colonialism

The last few weeks have been full of news of protest and direct action relating to racism, slavery and colonialism. As no one in Bristol can have failed to notice, it has been the week when the most prominent statue of slaver Edward Colston finally fell.

At the place where I work, the University of Bristol, this has brought to the forefront of minds  various issues to do with naming of buildings, and the University logo. The names of families whose wealth derived from slavery are prominently commemorated here, and the emblem of Edward Colston, a dolphin, is included in the University logo. These names and the logo are under review now – and quite rightly (though possibly putting out a tweet to announce this and … using the Colston- commemorationg logo to do so … was not the best call). Both the University and excellent and doughty scholars within it, as well as committed historians outside academia, have been looking at these issues for some time, but recent events have lent it all a particular urgency, and have also drawn in a much wider group of academics who know that we should be doing more, and faster, to try and make the education we offer both inclusive for all students, and also sufficiently energising and mind-expanding to cause positive change in the local community and the wider world.

I have, for many years, run a unit on Legal History for our Law undergraduates. It has always attracted excellent, sparky students who are alive to injustice, including racial and gender injustice, in the world. We have plans to include more on this in the next academic year. I dare say the issue of statues, putting them up, pulling them down, will feature. At the moment, though I am thinking about a couple of other issues: how the common law and common lawyers were implicated in slavery and colonialism, and how Legal History itself has been affected by having been developed as a discipline in the heyday of colonialism and racism. There is a lot to think about, and to do – and, as a medievalist rather than an expert on later periods, I am going to be synthesising the work of other, expert, scholars where I can find it – but it feels as if Legal History needs to put its metaphorical shoulder to the wheel.

Some of the questions which occur to me straight away:

  1. Is there a general survey of lawyers (or legal institutions) as slave-holders? I have put out a Twitter bat-signal to try and see what there is ‘out there’, having drawn something of a blank in my own preliminary searches – I suspect that there might not be, though there are sections and statements in various, disparate works. If there is not such a general survey, how can a start be made on this? Individual biographies are one way to go, I suppose, as well as checking the writings of lawyers themselves. It would be particularly interesting to make a start on lawyers in Bristol …
  2. In what ways has common law doctrine been implicated in slavery, racism, colonial projects? (Huge – obviously – and equally obviously there is excellent work here by historians, but it also seems that there are gaps with regard to more doctrinal (‘dry’?) parts of law, and areas in which a bit of imagination, and consciousness of the issue, might bring up a wider set of connections).

This morning, a cross check in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has shown me some interesting lawyer/slavers, which is a start for no. 1 at least

[And on the Bristol-Colston front, I just came across another example of his ‘philanthropic’ ubiquity in Bristol – there is a charitable foundation called the Dolphin Society, which might want to be a little firmer in its dissociation from Ed and his murderous works … https://www.dolphin-society.org.uk/history

Also the ODNB (updated 2008?) has EC article entitled  ‘Colston, Edward (1636–1721), merchant and philanthropist‘. Very neutral…]

12/6/2020

13/6

There is more ‘Colstonalia’ in Bristol – and more websites which might want to consider saying something stronger about the wrongness of slavery. Today’s example (accessed 13/6) is this one https://www.about-bristol.co.uk/chu-04.asp

17/6

A programme which those who are not regular watchers of Welsh language TV might have missed …

https://www.s4c.cymru/clic/programme/532330299

Dylan ar Daith – S4C programme (Welsh – with subtitles!) on Thomas Picton, governor of Picton, cruel even for the times. Interesting to see the Welsh coming to terms with not having been pure with regard to slavery. Some stories I had not heard here – worth a watch to see what you think of its tone.

 

Judging the feelings of women

[see also my blog on this for the Bristol Law School: https://legalresearch.blogs.bris.ac.uk/2018/11/the-all-women-jury-in-r-v-sutton-1968-of-no-more-than-minor-interest/ ]

Centenary commemorations of an important step towards inclusion of women in the legal system of England and Wales will soon be upon us: it is almost 100 years since the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 removed sex as a disqualifying factor for participation as a juror. Obviously, and importantly, this did not lead to equality either between men and women, or between women in different categories in terms of wealth, class, education or ethnicity. Nevertheless, it was a significant victory, won by persistent and righteous effort, and it deserves to be marked.

 

While the Act meant that women could be jurors, it also gave judges a discretion to choose a single sex jury (s.1)[i] This power could be used to exclude women from cases thought inappropriate for them. Excluding women was its usual function, but the section does envisage women-only juries too, ‘as the case may require’. Cases, it seems, were not thought to require women-only juries, for almost half a century following the act, but there is an interesting case from the late 1960s in which a judge decided to use it in an unexpected way, excluding all males from a jury. It is with this case that this post is concerned.[ii]

 

The case concerned the death of a small child: Miya Bibby Ullah  – a girl of three – in South Wales, in February 1968. The girl had died after having been scalded in a bath by her aunt, the accused, Margaret Ann Sutton, of an address in Cardiff.

 

The decision to order a women-only jury was made by Thesiger J when he heard the case at the assizes, in Swansea. Both the reasons for his decision and the responses to it are interesting. There are slightly differing accounts of Thesiger J’s reasoning, but there seem to have been two things which pushed him to insist on a female jury: (i) this was a case about child care, and women would know more about that than men, and; (ii) there was a need to have some insight into the feelings of women. “The judge said he felt that this was essential because it involved the bathing of a baby and the feelings of women were concerned.”[iii]

 

Leaving aside the gender stereotyping involved in this, it might seem that, if this was a matter of ‘expertise’, then witnesses, rather than jurors, would be able to provide it. It shows a strange lack of faith in male jurors to imagine them incapable of weighing up evidence relating to child care or feelings. The actual reasoning might have been a little different: it was not that men could not understand these matters – indeed, it was not that there was actually a need for an entirely female jury, but Thesiger wished to ensure there was a significant female presence in the jury, and the Act did not allow him to stipulate quotas of males and females, only all one or the other.

It is clear that the decision was Thesiger J’s own – in fact both the prosecution and the defence objected to his order, and the defence used it in an appeal. These objections are worth some consideration, as the lawyers do rather tie themselves in knots.

 

According to the Times report,[iv] Sutton’s counsel, Aubrey Myerson QC, said that making the order for an all-women jury would be an abuse of the judge’s discretion. What was his objection? The case was too emotive for a jury of women to be able to hear and decide without the steadying influence of a man or men: “this was a case which was emotionally power-packed, and to empanel a jury solely of women would present great problems because of that. It was going to be very difficult for 12 women without stability of any man being present, to apply an objective mind without partiality to the evidence in the case”. This says interesting things about women’s perceived inability to function rationally when faced with upsetting circumstances, if not helped by a man. There are, of course, implications in terms of what was supposed to happen when juries included both men and women. Myerson also made a comment straightforwardly denigrating women’s intelligence: [any jury of women was] not going to apply to the facts of this case the breadth of vision normally given by a jury in which there were men.” There we are – men: breadth of vision and their presence serving to broaden the vision of poor, narrow-visioned women. It might of course be that women in a mixed jury should just shut up and let men give full expression to their breadth of vision.

 

Myerson had a better point in relation to the judge’s assumption that just by being female, women jurors would be able to understand the accused: they were not, he said, going to be “a jury of women in the same age group as Sutton, or with the same background or intellectual capacity of the accused”.

 

The prosecution (T. E. Rhys Roberts) also objected to the order, on the ground that the subject matter was too upsetting for women: “the emotive value of injury or death to a child on a woman … would take it outside the bounds one expected of a jury”.

 

There was an attempt by the defence to change the jury by way of multiple challenges, but they were simply replaced by other women. The case proceeded.

Myerson, having lost on the question of an all-women jury, attempted to use the sex of the jurors to his (client’s) advantage, exhorting them: “In your historical role, the part you have to play is to show, in the discharge of the duties you have undertaken, that you can demonstrate to one of your own sex that high degree of fairness, that high degree of impartiality, and a complete lack of bias that reflects on your part an understanding of the mind of this woman in circumstances that can only be reflected by the acquittal of this woman.” An interesting, cajoling, tactic, but one which did not work for him: Sutton was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.

 

Although the law reports do not mention this, newspaper sources all describe the child as ‘coloured’. Clearly, this seemed to them a relevant fact. Nobody else is described in racial terms. It looks as if  the inclusion of the child’s ‘colour’ is less about diminishing the loss or offence, and more about building up a picture of what many readers would consider the undesirable and disorderly family life of the Suttons. Thus, the accused was a ‘spinster’ mother of two, with another on the way, from Splott (a poor part of the city) and there were hints that she had been moved to treat the child unkindly because her television watching had been interrupted. The fact that she was ‘unemployed’ was noted. The ‘mixed race’ of her sister’s child might well also have suggested to some that the Sutton sisters were ‘no better than they ought to be’.

 

There is also some comment on the female jurors: newspaper reports tell us that one of them could not read the oath; that they were “middle aged”, and that half of them had changed outfit from one hearing date to the next. Whether that last point is emphasising the frivolity of the outfit-changers or the poverty of the re-wearers is not clear (but the attire of male jurors is not much commented upon).

 

Sutton appealed against conviction and sentence, in part based on an argument that there should not have been an all-women jury. Her counsel at the appeal argued that having an all-women jury had been unfair to her, because the details of the case were “so harrowing that prejudice was likely with an all-women jury”.[v] No prejudice in that remark at all.

 

The Court of Appeal (Lord Parker LCJ; Ashworth J; Davies LJ)[vi] expressed disapproval of the use of the all-women jury ‘even if the case was highly emotional’. (There is some disagreement in the establishment as to whether women’s ‘emotional’ ‘nature’ is a good or a bad thing in terms of fitting them for jury service. I may not have the breadth of vision to understand it, of course). The court did not agree that Thesiger J had acted beyond his powers or in an arbitrary way, however. The conviction and sentence stood and the possibility of all-women juries remained in theory, though Sutton did not lead to a flood of similar orders for all-women juries.

Two things would be interesting to know: (i) why did this suddenly crop up so long after the Act; and (ii) what sort of cases were originally envisaged as likely women-only jury cases? In addition, it would be interesting to see the papers relating to this case which are in the National Archives, but not due to be opened until 2044. One for legal historians of the future.

 

Sources:

R v Sutton (Margaret Anne) (1969) 53 Cr. App. R. 128

Times Tuesday, April 30, 1968, 4; Wednesday, May 01, 1968, 4; Thursday, May 02, 1968. 5; Friday, May 03, 1968, 3; Tuesday, Nov 19, 1968, 7;

http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C4630609

Guardian 19 Nov 1968, 5.

Daily Mail 3 May 1968, 4.

Anne Logan (2013) ‘Building a New and Better Order’? Women and Jury Service in England and Wales, c.1920–70, Women’s History Review, 22:5, 701-716.

[i] Anne Logan (2013) ‘Building a New and Better Order’? Women and Jury Service in England and Wales, c.1920–70, Women’s History Review, 22:5, 701-716

[ii] Logan, 705, 706.

[iii] Times (London, England), Apr 30, 1968, 4.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Guardian 19 Nov 1968, p. 5.

[vi] R v Sutton (Margaret Anne) (1969) 53 Cr. App. R. 128