There was relatively little legal legislative development in the period 1760 to 1830. Britain’s position in the world strengthened considerably despite the loss of the thirteen North American colonies in 1776 to 1783.
Blackstone’s Commentaries exalted the stability and wisdom of common law. The British Constitution and the liberty of subjects appeared to be an example to the world.
The settlement following the so-called “Glorious Revolution” had largely secured Britain against arbitrary power and had secured individual freedoms. The Toleration Act extended substantial religious freedom to most people in England. The Catholic Reliefs Act in 1778 to 1791 removed most of the oppressive features against the anti-Catholic laws.
The 1689 revolution had unintendedly laid the foundations of modern constitutional monarchy. It had not asserted the innate rights of man, but the inherited an immemorial liberty of Englishmen. The liberties of Englishmen were said to be bound in with the preservation of the common law.
The Union with Ireland came about by the perceived failure of Grattan’s Constitution, the Rebellion of 1798 and the almost successful invasion by France.
However, the period coincided with tolerance of significant public abuses, acquiescence and legal fictions. Numerous irrationalities existed at common law. The party to an action and their spouse were not competent to be a witness at trial. A person charged with the murder was not entitled to counsel.
Every aspect of law was subject to fictions, which survived as oddities and lead to absurd results. The civil jurisdiction of the King’s Bench was based on a fiction that a defendant in an action for debt had been guilty of trespass. The civil jurisdiction of the Court of Exchequer was based on the fiction that the claimant was a debtor to the King and due to some injury was unable to pay the King the debt due. The process of barring the rights of an entailed estate involved a series of fictions.
Many legal fictions achieved desirable results through a roundabout method. Many such fictions were tolerated, although obviously absurd. The right to trial by battle subsisted in theory. Privilege of peerage immunised peers of the realm from criminal liability punishment for criminal offences.
Many humanitarian reforms were introduced in the early 19th century. This included
- the abolition of the slave trade, 1806;
- abolition of whipping for women, 1820;
- prevention of cruelty to animals, 1822;
- abolition of State lotteries, 1827;
- the prohibition of spring guns, 1827.
Humanitarianism in lines with evangelical religion, was reflected in some legislation, in this period. Anti-slavery legislation was introduced.
The Health and Morals Act, 1802, regulated employment of apprentices in cotton and woollen factory. It contained some sanitary and moral rules.
Further, modest Factory Acts were passed in 1819, 1825 and 1829. They were ultimately followed by a more effective Factories Act, 1831.
During this era, Toryism was supreme in the State and church and reform was identified with revolution.
1830s saw rapid social change in England. The existing institutions were increasingly inappropriate for a developing society.
Industry began to develop canals, use of steam and coal mining. Large industrial cities developed. The British population increased significantly from approximately eighteen million in 1800s to thirty million in 1830s. New cities developed in the north. The towns of Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool acquired greater importance. Employers of labour began to assume greater authority.
At the turn of the 19th century, 200 members of the parliament were elected by elected by as few as 7000 constituents. There was no relationship between the number of voters as between different constituencies. Many towns were unrepresented while relatively small areas had enormous numbers of MPs. A handful were elected by a small borough electorate. As many as a half were elected by nomination of a small elite of landed estate owner.
As the century progressed, the incongruencies of unreformed parliament became increasingly unacceptable. The power was concentrated on the South and West and was largely denied to the industrial cities in the north. Local government was corrupt and inefficient. The era coincided with the growing strength of the merchant and middle-classes.
Individualism is commonly associated with the principles of Jeremy Bentham. He introduced a rational utilitarian note to law. He sought to remodel English law in accordance with the utilitarian principles. He was regarded as the leading light of the English humanitarianism and enlightenment.
The utilitarian principle is often associated with laissez-faire. It promoted individual liberty. It sought that the law restrains the individual only as necessary for the safety and good order of the community at large.
Utilitarianism sought to promote a scientific character for legislation on the principle that utility based on faith in laissez-faire. It should promote the notion that every person should count for one and no man ought to count for more than one Law ought to enforce the obligations of contracts. A contract should be upheld in the absence of force or fraud.
The Municipal Reforms Act, 1836 in England sought to abolish abuses and anomalies in the management of cities and towns. The Poor Acts, 1834 in England and 1838 in Ireland sought to improve social conditions.
Criminal law was reformed, with abolition of whipping women, pillory and hanging in chains. Between 1827 and 1861, the number of crimes punishable with the death sentence was dramatically decreased. The prison was more reformed.
The legislation on protection of so-called lunatics was enacted. Laws were enacted to restrict cruelty to animal and prevent illegal practices such bullbaiting and cockfighting.
To promote freedom of contract, the crimes of forestalling, engrossing and regrating were abolished in 1844. The usury laws were repealed in 1833 to 1854. Former navigation laws were repealed in 1846 and 1849.
Marriage laws were reformed, in particular, the Marriage Act, 1835. Later legislation put marriage on a partly contractual basis. The Divorce Act, 1857 made marriage potentially dissolvable by High Court Order.
The Combination Acts 1824 and 1825 repealed earlier laws on the prohibiting combination of workmen, effectively prohibiting trade unions. They reversed the policy of the Combination Act 1800, which effectively banned trade unions. The Act allowed a limited right of combination, although still largely prohibited much trade union type activity.
The Combination Act provided penalties for violence, threats, intimidation, molestation, and obstruction for the purpose of compelling employers or employees to alter their business or change their mode of work. They exempted from liability the mere meeting of employers and employees for the purpose of setting conditions.
Significant reforms were undertaken to the law of property in the 1830s. The Prescription Act, 1832; Inheritance Act, 1833; Right of Recoveries Act, 1833; the Wills Act, 1837; Real Property Act, 1845 modernised property law. The Copyhold Act, 1841, reformed the anomalous tenure of copyright found in England.
The Settled Land Acts and the Settled Estate Acts from 1856 forward, sought to increase the powers of the tenant for life to deal with land of which they were not absolute owners.
The Great Reform Act of 1832 radically changed electoral law. It followed the Catholic emancipation legislation in 1829. The Act, effectively gave greater and predominant power to the middle-classes.
The Toleration Act extended liberties to Unitarians, 1813; Test and Corporation Act, 1828; Roman Catholic Relief Act, 1829; Nonconformists’ Chapels Act, 1844; Marriage Acts, 1835; and Oaths Acts, sought to open public office to a range of persons irrespective of religious belief.
Significant reforms were introduced to civil procedure and equitable procedure. The Common Law Procedure Act, 1852, 1854 and 1860 and Chancery Amendment Act and Chancery Reform Act rationalised and simplified civil proceedings. Needless technicalities were abolished. The ultimate step was the fusion of law and equity and the courts of law by the Judicature Act.
The Evidence Act, beginning in 1832 with Evidence Act and culminating in the Evidence Act 1898 removed irrational limitations of evidence law, the latter allowing persons accused of crimes to give evidence on their own behalf.
The County Courts Acts, 1846 to 1888 provided local courts in every part of a country on a systematic basis to which recourse might be had for small civil debts.