Many of the characters in Bleak House are involved in a notorious lawsuit known as Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which has been in dispute in the court of Chancery for several generations. The court of Chancery was a British legal institution which dealt primarily with disputes over inheritance, and throughout Bleak House, Dickens criticizes the Chancery court process as an archaic and unnecessarily convoluted system that does not help its clients. Instead, it allows predatory lawyers to take advantage of the expectations of plaintiffs, who hope they have been left property. Dickens uses his descriptions of Chancery, and the effects that a large suit like Jarndyce and Jarndyce has on its plaintiffs, to demonstrate that the Chancery court is an outdated and corrupt institution and not an effective way of finding the truth in legal disputes.
Dickens suggests that the 19th-century Chancery system is not an effective mode of achieving justice. The lawsuit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce has gone on for many years without any success and is famous in the courts as a particularly convoluted example of Chancery process. Although the case is finally resolved at the end of the novel, the money owed to its plaintiffs is used up in legal fees. Therefore, even if people really are owed money in the case, they do not receive this money at the case’s termination, and, therefore, the court fails to achieve justice.
The Chancery court is associated with infirmity and decay throughout Bleak House, which speaks to Dickens’ distaste for it. The original will around which Jarndyce and Jarndyce is constructed is described as a “scarecrow suit,” which suggests it has little substance. Mr. Jarndyce, one of the descendants of the Jarndyce family and the guardian of Esther, Richard, and Ada, who are “wards” of the case, states that, even if the will at one time made sense, the lawyers have “twisted it into such a state of bedevilment that the original merits of the case have long disappeared.” This suggests that the Chancery process does not help to clarify legal disputes but only confuses them further. The court system is parodied by its association with Krook’s shop, a rag and bone shop behind the courthouse that is run by an old man named Krook, who has the ironic nickname, “the Lord Chancellor,” a reference to the high judge of Chancery. Krook’s shop is a jumble of moldy law papers which Krook, who is illiterate, cannot understand. Dickens uses Krook’s shop to mirror the proceedings in Chancery and to suggest that the court, like Krook’s shop, is a tangle of confused legal affairs, which no one is really trying to solve.
Instead, the Chancery system is intentionally corrupt and encourages lawyers to prolong legal cases. Although lawyers are supposed to seek justice for their clients, they are incentivized to extend cases in order to run up large legal fees. Mr. Vholes, who becomes Richard’s lawyer, demonstrates as much when Richard sets out to resolve Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Rather than looking out for Richard’s best interests, Mr. Vholes encourages Richard to pour resources into the suit until he is on the brink of bankruptcy. Dickens suggests that lawyers like Mr. Vholes are predatory, noting that Vholes has “something of the Vampire” about him. This implies that Mr. Vholes is not really interested in helping Richard solve the case but that instead he deliberately overcomplicates and lengthens the process in order to profit from Richard. Richard is vulnerable and puts his trust in Mr. Vholes because he believes that when the case is complete, he will receive a large financial settlement. Dickens further suggests that the whole Chancery profession is self-serving because it does nothing to achieve real justice and instead only exists to provide lawyers with work. Although the Chancery system is in need of reform, the 19th-century public is reluctant to make these changes to the law because they feel that it would be unfair to men like Mr. Vholes, who supports a family with his legal work. Dickens, however, feels that these reforms are necessary to prevent predatory legal practice and to prevent self-serving lawyers from holding up the course of real justice.
Dickens contrasts the Chancery system with the character of Mr. Bucket, who represents criminal law. Mr. Bucket is a private investigator who is active in London and who is hired to solve the murder of a lawyer named Mr. Tulkinghorn. Unlike the Chancery system, which relies on legions of lawyers to create work for itself, Mr. Bucket operates alone and relies on wit and observation to solve crimes. He solves the murder of Mr. Tulkinghorn quickly and efficiently, implying that Mr. Bucket is effective as a law enforcement figure. However, although Mr. Bucket is efficient when it comes to solving crime, he lacks social responsibility because he operates for his own personal gain. This is evident when Mr. Bucket apprehends Mademoiselle Hortense because Sir Leicester offers a reward. Although it is implied that Mr. Bucket does solve the case accurately, he is not incentivized to do this—he is only incentivized to produce an individual, who he claims committed the crime, to receive the money. Dickens suggests that in cases of criminal law, legal process is necessary to prevent individuals from being falsely accused. Mr. Jarndyce supports this sentiment; despite his hatred of Chancery, he encourages George to take a lawyer when he is wrongly accused of Mr. Tulkinghorn’s murder. Criminal law, Mr. Jarndyce argues, is a different matter from Chancery and requires regulation to make sure that individuals cannot benefit from falsely accusing others. Although Mr. Bucket is invaluable as someone who investigates crimes, his claims must be verified legally for true justice to be served. Overall, Dickens suggests that legal reform is necessary to prevent corruption in both the court of Chancery and the criminal justice system so that institutions and individuals who uphold the law are held accountable for the processes they oversee.
Law vs. Justice ThemeTracker
Law vs. Justice Quotes in Bleak House
The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest, near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation: Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery. Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds, this day, in the sight of heaven and earth.
This is the Court of Chancery; which has its decaying houses and its blighted lands in every shire; which has its worn-out lunatic in every madhouse, and its dead in every churchyard; which has its ruined suitor, with his slipshod heels and threadbare dress, borrowing and begging through the round of every man’s acquaintance; […] there is not an honorable man among its practitioners who would not give—who does not often give—the warning, ‘Suffer any wrong that can be done you, rather than come here!’
Sir Leicester Dedlock is only a baronet, but there is no mightier baronet than he. His family is as old as the hills, and infinitely more respectable. He has a general opinion that the world might get on without hills, but would be done up without Dedlocks. He would on the whole admit Nature to be a good idea (a little low, perhaps, when not enclosed with a park-fence), but an idea dependent for its execution on your great county families.
‘We are never to get out of Chancery! We have come by another way to our place of meeting yesterday, and—by the Great Seal, here’s the old lady again!’
A little way within the shop-door, lay heaps of old crackled parchment scrolls, and discolored and dog’s-eared law- papers […] One had only to fancy, as Richard whispered to Ada and me while we all stood looking in, that yonder bones in a corner, piled together and picked very clean, were the bones of clients, to make the picture complete.
She partly drew aside the curtain of the long low garret-window, and called our attention to a number of bird-cages hanging there: some containing several birds. There were larks, linnets, and goldfinches—I should think at least twenty. ‘I began to keep the little creatures,’ she said, ‘with an object that the wards will readily comprehend. With the intention of restoring them to liberty. When my judgment should be given. Ye-es! They die in prison, though. Their lives, poor silly things, are so short in comparison with Chancery proceedings, that, one by one, the whole collection has died over and over again.’
‘How much of this indecision of character,’ Mr Jarndyce said to me, ‘is chargeable on that incomprehensible heap of uncertainty and procrastination on which he has been thrown from his birth, I don’t pretend to say; but that Chancery, among its other sins, is responsible for some of it, I can plainly see. It has engendered or confirmed in him a habit of putting off—and trusting to this, that, and the other chance, without knowing what chance—and dismissing everything as unsettled, uncertain, and confused.’
Mr Guppy suspects everybody who enters on the occupation of a stool in Kenge and Carboy’s office, of entertaining, as a matter of course, sinister designs upon him. He is clear that every such person wants to depose him. If he be ever asked how, why, when, or wherefore, he shuts up one eye and shakes his head. On the strength of these profound views, he in the most ingenious manner takes infinite pains to counterplot, when there is no plot; and plays the deepest games of chess without any adversary.
Even in the thinking of her endurance, she drew her habitual air of proud indifference about her like a veil, though she soon cast it off again.
‘I must keep this secret, if by any means it can be kept, not wholly for myself. I have a husband, wretched and dishonoring creature that I am!’
‘I dread one person very much.’
‘Not a friend. One who is too passionless to be either. He is Sir Leicester Dedlock’s lawyer; mechanically faithful without attachment, and very jealous of the profit, privilege, and reputation of being master of the mysteries of great houses.’
I never shall forget those two seated side by side in the lantern’s light; Richard, all flush and fire and laughter, with the reins in his hand; Mr. Vholes, quite still, black-gloved, and buttoned up, looking at him as if he were looking at his prey and charming it. I have before me the whole picture of the warm dark night, the summer lightning, the dusty track of road closed in by hedgerows and high trees, the gaunt pale horse with his ears pricked up, and the driving away at speed to Jarndyce and Jarndyce.
The one great principle of the English law is, to make business for itself. There is no other principle distinctly, certainly, and consistently maintained through all its narrow turnings. Viewed by this light it becomes a coherent scheme, and not the monstrous make the laity are apt to think it. Let them but once clearly perceive that its grand principle is to make business for itself at their expense, and surely they will cease to grumble.
Mr. Vholes gives it a rap, and it sounds as hollow as a coffin. Not to Richard, though. There is encouragement in the sound to him. Perhaps Mr. Vholes knows there is.
They gradually discern the elder Mr Smallweed, seated in his chair upon the brink of a well or grave of waste paper; the virtuous Judy groping therein, like a female sexton; and Mrs Smallweed on the level ground in the vicinity, snowed up in a heap of paper fragments, print and manuscript, which would appear to be the accumulated compliments that have been sent flying at her in the course of the day. The whole party, Small included, are blackened with dust and dirt, and present a fiendish appearance not relieved by the general aspect of the room.
Heaven knows what he sees. The green, green woods of Chesney Wold, the noble house, the pictures of his forefathers, strangers defacing them, officers of police coarsely handling his most precious heirlooms, thousands of fingers pointing at him, thousands of faces sneering at him. But if such shadows flit before him to his bewilderment, there is one other shadow which he can name with something like distinctness even yet, and to which alone he addresses his tearing of his white hair, and his extended arms.