top of page

1843: Justice in Cuckfield isn't seen to be done and so isn't done....

Hertford Mercury and Reformer - Saturday 28 January 1843


We learn from the Brighton Guardian that a curious custom prevails in the administration of justice at Cuckfield, Sussex. An example of it occurred last week, 

"A young man named Davis, the son a respectable tradesman at Lewes, was taken up on a warrant issued by an old gentleman named Cherry, and taken before the Sussex Justice at Cuckfield on Wednesday last. The information charged the young man with administering some noxious ingredient lo a girl (the servant of his master's family) for the purpose of producing abortion. Mr. S.W. Bennett attended on behalf of the prisoner; but Mr. Cherry would not relax a stern rule they had had at Cuckfield, he said, “for five-and-twenty years, always to hear felony cases in private. The lawyer remonstrated and entreated but his worship was both stern and stubborn.” 

The report adds that the Secretary of State has been appealed to against this practice, but without success; for it would appear that the absurd notions of the Sussex Justice find favour at the Home Office, and his system is “upheld." 

Justice Cherry perhaps acts upon a more profound principle than the lawyer who demanded leave to be present as the adviser of the accused party gave him credit for, when remonstrating against the private hearing. He possibly remembers the maxim, that the man who is robbed loses nothing so long as he knows nothing of his loss; and applying this in its full extent, conceives society, when grievously wronged by a felon, is in reality uninjured if the felony be kept secret. He may have thought deeply upon the chances of an example operating in the worst direction, tempting when it should deter; he may have observed that offences which are much talked about are apt to be repealed for that very reason, and that culprits who fill too large a space in the public eye are pretty sure to find imitators; in short, he may have wisdom enough to know, that of  all crimes, those we are least likely to commit are those we never heard of at all. We must charitably hope that some philosophy of this kind must at least have been discerned at the Home Office, in the practice of “always hearing cases of felony private." 

Court Case at the Talbot c1870

The answer given, upon this snug plan of magister, privacy, in a complaint that a purse had been stolen, would be, "make as little noise as possible about it, or you will put it into somebody's head to steal your watch." A hush should be raised upon the cry of “stop thief," and justice should be painted with her finger upon her lips, the case before her being marked "private and confidential." 

Whether the following fact was also reported to the Secretary of State upon the same occasion, does not appear:— If our memory serves us, there will on reference found more acquittals 'no bills’ - in the Cuckfield district cases than in those coming from districts ten limes its population <niei the cause which we never could divine is now explained. The corrective supervision of tbe public and of the press is wanting Cuckfield, and legal blunders are the result." 

This a little drawback upon the advantages of the quiet, close system which has been in existence for a quarter of a century. Legal blunders are committed, by which true bills are defeated and thrown out, prisoners are sent for trial, who, if their cases had been heard, would have been discharged at once. An evil cutting two ways is created, and the authorities decide, with admirable logic, that, as it does not tend to fill the gaols with convicted felons, it must necessarily work well for public morals. 

Perilous and unfortunate is every man's position, who gets any mischance into the common public office of the Justice; but he is doubly doomed to danger and ill luck luck who finds himself caught in the Justice's back parlour, out of hearing. While the doors are open, he seems to have, if innocent, a chance of escape; but the preliminary shutting-in is indicative of bolts and bars to come - which there is no chance of breaking through, but by the case breaking down, thanks to the legal blunders of the over cautious and exclusion-loving Justice Cherries. 

Justices of this turn of mind have, moreover, such very rigid and downright notions of privacy; they are as secret as inquisitors; they not only fasten their doors, but stop the keyholes—not content with turning out the waiting witnesses and the public, they exclude even the legal adviser of the prisoner. This, as it crowns the absurdity, crowns the injustice; for the law allows a person accused of felony the privilege of counsel upon his trial, and the advice and knowledge which may be efficacious establishing his innocence then, might be efficacious in establishing it at his first examination before the magistrate. The plea that would avert conviction, might suffice to avert committal; and to give him the benefit assistance only the last stage is clearly a notion of justice peculiar to justices. 

We did not advert to this case for the purpose of discussing what is so extremely clear and open to the common understanding, but merely to point out an example of the absurdities which custom sanctions — of the injustice that may prevail in particular districts, almost plained of, for a quarter of century—of the impunity with which the law may be set aside by an administrator of it—and of the coolness with which a minister, who doubtless considers secrecy un-English when politics are concerned, permits cases of felony to be invariably investigated with secrecy before his worship at Cuckfield. We are taught to boast of our "equal rights and equal laws," in the face of inequalities multiplied in every direction, and growing hourly practice. 

The law is the true many-headed monster; it has several aspects, not merely in several counties, but in the same county. In two different towns it wears two different faces, and in Cuckfield it hides its face as though ashamed of its doings. Equality is asserted; while at Brighton a case of alleged felony is investigated publicly, which, if removed a few miles off, would be dealt with in privacy. And so privately is this latter order of proceeding carried on, that a public observer a little beyond the district has only just become acquainted with the anomaly that has existed for quarter of a century. 

If bad begins, worse remains behind. The irregularities the magistrate's office are but the forerunners of greater ones in the gaol, where inequalities have flourished and do flourish, to an extent that bestows on the wheel of punishment something of the character of the wheel of fortune. In one gaol, the prisoner before trial is worse off than the convicted felon is in another; and the debtor in this prison has been subjected to a discipline hard as the thief's lot at a little distance- Six months' imprisonment in one building having a particular set of regulations, means nine months in a second, and twelvemonth in a third. ~ 

We may know, by the reference to a five-and-twenty years' practice, under what government the Justice in question commenced his system; but we should have known at once, the non-intervention of the present powers at the Home Office, that he was not one of the much-abused Russell and Normanby magistrates— Examiner. 



bottom of page