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The Law of Pandemics

Infectious and communicable diseases have been affecting humans for many thousands of years and ancient populations suffered many of the diseases our modern society is inflicted with, for example a 2008 study recently concluded that Tuberculosis is at least 9,000 years old from an analysis of ancient skeletons. However, it is only since the rise of agriculture and cultivation 11,000 years ago, and the associated wider mixing of communities and establishment of trade routes, that infectious diseases have had the channels available to more readily spread across populations as a whole.

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Hippocrates (credit: Wikipedia)

The word epidemic originates around 2,500 years ago and the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates prominently used it in his set of books ‘Epidemics’ as an adjective to mean a disease “which circulates or propagates in a country” and its exact meaning and usage has evolved over time. The first recorded usage of the word pandemic is much later in Harvey’s ‘Anatomy of Consumptions’ (1666), its origin taken from the ancient Greek ‘pan’ to mean ‘all’ and ‘demos’ meaning ‘people/country’ and its definition as a noun is now commonly accepted to be “an outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population” (Meriam-Webster). Incidentally, Harvey suggested preventative measures for pandemic diseases, two of which were for an individual to “walk daily in a pleasant, airy and umbragious [shady] garden, park or field” and eat less “flesh-meat”, meaning animals.

The first detailed account of a pandemic in global history is the disease that reached and spread through Athens (believed to have originated near Ethiopia) in 430 BC, the symptoms and effect of which were recorded by the Greek historian Thucydides. It is believed to have killed one third of the population of ancient Athens. The symptoms comprised fever, inflammation of the eyes and throat and difficulty breathing, amongst other things. Whilst there has been much debate amongst historians about what disease this pandemic involved, two prominent suggestions are Typhoid and Measles.

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The Plague of Justinian (credit: Devastating Disasters)

Another significant early pandemic was the emergence of the Plague of Justinian in 541 AD in the Byzantine Empire and named after then emperor Justinian I. During the following two centuries, it spread throughout the world across a number of outbreaks, likely first hitting Britain in the year 597 AD, at that time attributed to travellers from abroad and their attempts to convert pagan Britain to Christianity. A further outbreak occurred in 664 (later known as ‘The Yellow Plague’) which may have killed one third of the population. Anglo-Saxon monk-historian Bede in his ‘Ecclesiastical History’ states that this plague began on 1 May 664 and coincided with a total solar eclipse. The Yellow Plague may have been viewed at the time as an omen of dire times to come and in the following centuries may have been re-framed by religious authority figures as a communal punishment for transgression against God’s laws and due to the paganism of the British people at that time. Scientists have recently concluded that it is likely that the disease of Justinian’s Plague was caused by the same bacteria that caused the very well-known pandemic Black Death in Europe in the 14th Century.

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A Black Death plague doctor (credit: Wikipedia).

The European outbreak of the Black Death began in Sicily in October 1347 and, prior to the start of the Black Death in England in 1348, the vast majority of English epidemics since 664 (in the wider sense) were famine-sickness related and were a relatively common but less impactful occurrence. The Black Death’s impact was like nothing the world had seen and is believed to have entered Britain in August 1348 and quickly spread to London by the end of the year, leading Parliament to be prorogued on 1 January 1349. The disease ravaged the country and drastically thinned the population by an estimated 30-40% over the course of 1349. In response to a sudden loss of workers, King Edward III issued the Ordinance of Labourers on 18 June 1349 which stated that all those under the age of 60 must work and employers could not pay, nor employees demand, wages that exceeded pre-Black Death (1346) amounts. Generally seen as ineffective in a practical sense, Parliament tried to reinforce the Ordinance by passing the Statute of Labourers in 1351 which is widely considered the origin of English labour law. Again, practically this did not work because workers were now at a premium. Farm wages in 1351 were two or three times the amount of pre-Black Death wages and generally farming wages on the whole doubled between 1350 and 1450. These restrictive labour laws were also a significant factor in the cause of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 which had a number of wide-ranging impacts on Britain’s societal and class structure. Instances of the bubonic plague occurred in England (on lesser scales) throughout the next two centuries and lastly affected England in 1666. Whilst quarantining in the time of the Black Death had been followed informally at a personal level, it was not until the Quarantine Act of 1710 where the quarantining of incoming ships and crews to prevent the plague travelling from country to country was formally introduced. A number of further Quarantine Acts followed introducing various procedures and quarantine mechanisms, eventually being repealed by the Public Health Act of 1896.

A number of global pandemics have affected the UK, ranging from Smallpox across the 16th and 17th centuries, various outbreaks of the bubonic plague, cholera and influenza and more recently the Spanish Flu of 1918-19 and Swine Flu of 2009-10, amongst others. Responses to some of which have been direct and indirect catalysts for changes in English law. The response to the current global pandemic (Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19)) is a prime example of such legal changes.

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Global Pandemic (credit: Axios)

Particularly severe cholera outbreaks in 1831-32 brought to the forefront of people’s minds the poor conditions of sanitation in the cities of the UK. Eventually, following consultation and papers for reform, this led to the introduction of the Public Health Act 1848 which introduced a Central Board of Health whose remit was improving supplies of water, drainage and sewerage, as well as regulating the country’s environmental health with local authorities being responsible for practical implementation. Whilst this initial Act was limited in its scope, a more comprehensive Public Health Act 1875 was later passed which also required each local authority to have a medical and sanitary officer whose powers extended to isolating patients in hospital, requiring the disinfection of property and belongings, suspension of schools and temporary closure of businesses. The key principles of the late 19th Century for improving public health were adequate sewers, removal of rubbish and clean drinking water.

A particularly bad pandemic of Smallpox in 1870-1875 led to the introduction of other relevant pandemic laws of note, being the Vaccination Acts 1885, 1898 and 1907 which required compulsory vaccination. These Acts were met with much opposition as there was fiery debate at the time about the causes of infectious diseases and the effectiveness of vaccines.

Supplementing these Acts were the Infectious Disease (Notification) Acts of 1889 and 1899 which required General Practitioners and people generally to report cases of infectious diseases to the local authority; failure to do so would incur a fine of up to 40 shillings. Over the following decades, various specific health Acts were introduced, prominently among them being the 1936 and 1961 Acts which built on and reiterate the provisions of the older Public Health Acts.

The bedrock of English law relating to infectious diseases specifically is the Public Health (Control of Diseases) Act 1984 which modernises and extends many of the general powers described above that appeared in the Public Health Act 1875. This Act, together with a large number of supplementary Acts and regulations, is what gives the Government the authority to take the recent actions they have in response to Covid-19 (e.g. closing of non-essential businesses). With the reorganisation of the National Health Sefvice in 1974 and 1990, the responsibility for relevant community healthcare moved from local authorities to the National Health Service although legal responsibility for infectious diseases still remained with the local authorities which made the performance of certain duties in this respect more difficult, and by whom, ambiguous.

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Covid-19 (credit: New Scientist)

The most recent pandemic which is rapidly spreading across the world is Covid-19 (originating in Wuhan, China in late 2019) which as at 26 March 2020, has infected 491,180 people across the world and caused 22,165 deaths. In response to the pandemic Parliament has passed, in force as of 25 March 2020, the Coronavirus Act 2020. This Act defines coronavirus to be severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-Cov-2) and the coronavirus disease means Covid-19. This Act grants wide powers to the police to suspend public gatherings, to detain people suspected to be infected by Covid-19 and for the Government to intervene in a number of industries to limit the spread of Covid-19. Related regulations are The Health Protection (Coronavirus) Regulations 2020 which came into force on 10 February 2020 which supplement the provisions of the Public Health (Control of Diseases) Act 1984. The regulations allow for the designation of certain buildings as isolation facilities and for people to be kept in isolation where there is a reasonable risk of spreading Covid-19. The Coronavirus Act 2020 has a 2 year time limit (25 March 2022) and can be extended by 6 months at government ministerial discretion, although the Act is subject to 6 monthly renewal by Parliament. It is apparent that the UK Government felt they needed the powers afforded by this additional legislation to provide an effective legal framework for its response to Covid-19. This may have been due to the out-of-date nature of the law relating to infectious diseases and public health generally, the framework for which dates back to the mid-19th Century.

Given provisions in the Covid-19 legislation to delay or prevent the eviction of residential and business tenants from their properties and supporting employers to pay their employees 80% of their wages if they cannot work due to Covid-19, it is probable that a post-Covid-19 UK will face difficult legal and ethical questions regarding the extent to which certain laws should be amended for the public good generally. There will undoubtedly be a knock-on effect on the laws regulating a number of industries and workplaces and relating to issues affecting us all. The Covid-19 pandemic and the UK Government’s response to it will hold a clear mirror up to our laws and societal structure. There will be permanent changes to both but, for the moment, it is not yet known the extent to which the Law of Pandemics will become the Law of the Land.

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The Right to Vote, Women’s Suffrage, and Tumultuous Petitions

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Historic Parliament

The UK’s General Election on 8 June 2017 provides a compelling backdrop for a discussion of the history of voting rights in Parliamentary elections. In particular, the struggle of women to obtain the right to vote holds a unique place in English Legal History and is worthy of discussion.

Following the Battles of Lewes in 1264 and the defeat of royal forces, Simon de Montfort (Earl of Leicester) brought together the English Parliament of 1265 consisting of, amongst others, two representatives (Knights) from each County, with the insistence that such representatives be elected. Although de Montfort was killed at the Battle of Evesham later in 1265, the idea of elected Members of Parliament persisted.

In the following two centuries, there is some debate surrounding who could exercise the right to vote in the Counties, although it is probable that all house owners resident in the County could do so, both male and female. This state of affairs continued until the implementation of the Electors of Knights of the Shire Act 1432 by Henry VI (reciting and reiterating an earlier Act of 1430) which stated that only landowners whose land attracted an annual rent of at least £2 were eligible to vote in Parliamentary elections. Although the 1432 Act did not limit the vote to men, male-only voting became customary as an extension of the social norm of men being perceived to be best placed to protect women’s interests.

Those who owned land in multiple Counties with the required value of £2 could vote multiple times, providing a powerful election tool for the wealthy landowners of the time. It was not until the Representation of the People Act 1832 that the right to vote was explicitly restricted to men, specifying ‘male persons’ in the Act itself. The 1832 Act restricted the vote to men who occupied land to the value of £10 which excluded approximately 85% of men and, of course, 100% of women. In 1780, only 214,000 people in England had the right to vote which was only 3% of the total population of 8,000,000. This number had only increased to 366,000 by 1831. The 1832 reforms did little to change the situation. Further Representation of the People Acts in 1867 and 1884 substantially increased the number of voters by extending male suffrage to all house owners. This still did not achieve universal male suffrage.

In the intervening centuries, some wealthier women landowners had voted in Parliamentary elections and there is evidence of such women appointing male proxies to vote on their behalf. Great publicity was made of the restrictions of the 1832 Act when, in 1867, Lily Maxwell voted in her local Parliamentary by-election. Ms Maxwell had been entered on the electoral register by mistake as she met the property value requirements. Ms Maxwell’s vote was later declared illegal by the Court of Common Pleas.

Although women’s suffrage was a political topic before and after 1832 Act (with the influential jurist Jeremy Bentham calling for the right to vote for women in 1817), the National Society for Women’s Suffrage was not established until 1872 and the eventually more militant organisation of the Women’s Social and Political Union was established by the Pankhursts in 1903.

Despite being well known for militant action, the suffragettes had carried out a great number of peaceful attempts to publicise the struggle for women’s suffrage. The militant action was largely in response to these peaceful attempts being ignored and undermined by men in power. Two of these peaceful attempts in particular are fascinating highlights in English Legal History.

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Emmeline Pankhurst

Firstly, in 1908, a Mr Muskett was successfully prosecuting a group of suffragettes in the Westminster Police Court. The group were sentenced to two months in prison and a £5 fine, a common punishment that was levied many times against the suffragettes. Mr Muskett warned the group that if they offended again, he would seek to use the long dormant Tumultuous Petitioning Act 1661 against them. The 1661 Act was a remnant from the time of Charles II and stated that a group of no larger than 10 people were allowed to petition the monarch or the House of Commons. If a group larger than 10 did so, they were liable to a sentence of 3 months in prison. The 1661 Act was a response to the many violent petitions brought outside the House of Commons towards the climax of the English Civil War in 1651 and which led to the execution of Charles I. The right to petition the Monarch and the House of Commons is a long established right in English Legal History and stretches back at least to the time of Henry III in the 13th Century.

The right to petition in this way was enshrined in the Bill of Rights 1689 which was seen by some as a de facto repeal of the 1661 Act. Unfortunately, the 1661 Act was not formally repealed until the implementation of the Public Order Act 1986.

Emmeline Pankhurst wished to test Mr Muskett’s assertion and the day after the successful prosecution above, she brought a group of 13 suffragettes to Parliament to petition. A prosecution under the 1661 Act would require a full trial before a jury (something the suffragettes desperately wanted as many members of the public were sympathetic to the cause of women’s suffrage), rather than a closed trial at the Police Court. Mrs Pankhurst was arrested on her approach to Parliament and tried in the Police Court. Sadly, no reference was ever made to the 1661 Act.

Secondly, much of the early suffragette work revolved around campaigning in areas where Parliamentary by-elections were taking place in an attempt to de-seat current Liberal Parliamentary members and upset the status quo. In 1908, a 34 year old Winston Churchill was promoted to the Government Cabinet by becoming the President of the Board of Trade. Any new Cabinet member had to go through a process of re-election to their constituency. Christabel Pankhurst and other suffragettes campaigned in Mr Churchill’s previously safe constituency of North West Manchester. Mr Churchill, to his shock, lost his seat to the Conservative William Joynson-Hicks by 429 votes. The day after the election, the Daily Telegraph carried the front page headline: “Winston Churchill is OUT! OUT! OUT!”.

Mr Churchill then sought election in the constituency of Dundee which was a Liberal Parliamentary stronghold seat that he would win without doubt. In any event, Emmeline Pankhurst sought to campaign against him and part of Mr Churchill’s response was to hold a women only event assuring the women of Dundee that he would seek women’s suffrage in the next Parliament. Mr Churchill won the seat. This must have proved an interesting early political tumult for a man who would go on to serve two terms as Prime Minister, one of those terms during the course of World War II.

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Young Winston Churchill

Further campaigning and political pressure led to the introduction of the Representation of the People Act 1918 which granted the right to vote to all men, free from property value restrictions. The 1918 Act also granted voting rights to women over 30 years of age, albeit with the requirement of being a property owner. The Representation of the People Act 1928 (a mere 89 years ago) followed which granted voting rights to all men and women aged 21 and over (the then age of majority, rather than 18 as it is today), with no property ownership or value restrictions.

Interestingly, a 1948 Act of the same name abolished the English University constituencies. These were constituencies surrounding certain historic Universities (e.g. Oxford and Cambridge) and graduates of those Universities were allowed to vote both in the constituency where they resided and also in their University constituency, thereby voting twice in the same election. The 1948 Act put an end to this last vestige of multiple voting. Finally, the Representation of the People Act 1969 extended the right to vote to those aged 18 to 20 years old.

As an attempt at further Parliamentary Election reform, the Labour minority Government of 1931 introduced a Representation of the People Bill which included a provision to switch from the First Past The Post voting system (the still current UK model) to a form of Alternative Vote. The Bill was successful at the voting stages in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords but the Labour Government was defeated in the 1931 General Election before the Bill could become law. A national referendum in 2011 asked the UK public whether or not they wanted to switch to the Alternative Vote system. The switch was rejected with 67.9% of the public answering ‘No’. In 2016, Green Party MP Caroline Lucas introduced into the House of Commons the Electoral Reform Bill with a provision to change voting in Parliamentary elections to a form of Proportional Representation which would assist the smaller political parties in achieving representation in Parliament. The Bill was rejected.

In the UK’s 2015 General Election, only 43% of those aged 18-24 years old voted in comparison to over 80% of those aged 65 and over. The very youngest adults of the UK have only had the right to vote for 48 years. It has certainly been a long and long fought over road across nearly 800 years of English Legal History to achieve the Parliamentary election and voting system the UK has today. Perhaps the voting turnout from the youngest in our society in the UK’s 2017 General Election on 8 June 2017 will make its own mark in English Legal History.

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1867: When democracy came to the Isle of Man?

Peter Edge*

manxcrestThe Isle of Man holds a unique place in English Legal History. From 1266 to the late 14th Century, the Island was alternatively ruled and vied for by Scotland and England. Eventually, the Island came under the rule of the English Crown, but never became part of the United Kingdom, and retained its own legal system, albeit strongly influenced, and at times determined, by English law. The Island today therefore is a self-governing Crown dependency.

The UK Government is responsible for the management of the Island’s defence and external relations generally. The UK Parliament maintains the power to legislate for the Island, although it is disputed whether Acts of Parliament are superior to Acts of Tynwald, the Manx legislature.

Manx Legal History and its inter-relationship with English Legal History is fascinating and is worthy of close study.

One hundred and fifty years ago, the Isle of Man carried out its first elections to the national legislature, the Tynwald. From the early 17th century the House of Keys, the lower chamber, had been elected by a partnership of the Lieutenant-Governor of the Island and the Keys themselves. The Keys would nominate two candidates to a vacancy, of whom the Lieutenant-Governor would elect one, almost invariably the first. Unsurprisingly, as Moore put it, the Keys became “a closed corporation … largely confined to a few leading families”.

The upper chamber of the Tynwald, the Council, consisted of the principal Crown officers of the Island. This matched a model to be found across the British Empire. A lower chamber elected by itself, however, was not to be found elsewhere. In 1837 Robert Peel described it as “[s]o anomalous a body as could not exist within the British Empire”. Certainly it contrasted sharply with contemporary elected assemblies in the Province of Canada (1841), and New Zealand (1853).

The catalyst for attention being directed at this anomaly was not a strict concern with Imperial consistency. Rather, during the nineteenth century there was an increased concern that Manx revenues were not being spent on projects to advance Manx interests, and consequent Manx pressure for reform. The old Manx constitution posed two significant obstacles to the granting of greater authority to Tynwald – the legislation which led to the 1867 elections dealt with these obstacles in order to allow the creation of distinctively Manx public finances controlled by Isle of Man based officials.

Firstly, enhancing the practical powers of the House of Keys while leaving them in the grip of a particular class of society was not acceptable to the Imperial government. This was particularly the case as the Isle of Man was already developing elected government at local level. An 1866 Act provided for popular elections to the House of Keys to be held in 1867, with the first elections taking place across 2-5 April.

Secondly, the Keys had an ancient, and distinctive, role as the ultimate jury of the Island. From 1601 the Keys sat in the Manx criminal court which dealt with felonies, responsible for punishing juries who gave a false and partial verdict. By 1823 they were seen as overreaching themselves, and delaying the court. In 1824, under orders from London, the Lieutenant-Governor manufactured a test case which, on reaching the Privy Council in 1824, confirmed that the Keys had no place in the criminal court. Even after their removal from this Court, however, the Keys continued to exercise their customary role as a jury of appeal in other cases, particularly serious civil cases. Numerous examples can be found of the Keys reversing the verdict of a lower jury, for instance in 1830 reversing the dismissal of an assault suit and awarding £100 damages plus costs to the plaintiff.

The Keys as a body could thus be responsible both for passing a law, and acting as appeal jury in a case turning on that law. Concerns were exacerbated by the role of individual Members of the Keys as important parts of the Manx establishment, particularly the legal establishment. G.W. Dumbell, for instance, had represented the plaintiff in a libel case against the Manx Sun. On appeal to the Keys, Mr Dumbell was part of the body which decided to increase the damages awarded to that plaintiff, his client, from 40 shillings to £100. The role of the Keys in jury trials was put forward at one point by the Keys as a reason why they should not be subject to election. Instead, the 1866 legislation removed them from the appeals process, and 1867 legislation introduced a new appeals procedure.

1867 is justly celebrated in the Isle of Man. It was an incomplete democratisation, but provided an essential foundation for extensive reforms in the century that followed.

Firstly, initially the electorate was very narrow, with an open ballot, and a franchise limited to adult males able to meet a high property qualification. Kermode has suggested that around 20% of the adult population were eligible to vote, with even fewer eligible to stand for election. The first elections led, in the words of Brown’s Directory, to “a thoroughly conservative house, 13 of the 24 members elected having sat in the old self-elected House, and a majority of the 11 new men being pledged to conservative views”. These issues were addressed by fifty years of electoral reform.

Most importantly, and not sufficiently well-recognised globally, in 1881 the Isle of Man became the first territory in the British Empire to include women in the electorate to the national legislature. The first vote by a woman was cast by either Eliza Jane Goldsmith of Ramsey, Catherine Callow of Ballakilley, or Esther Kee of Leodest. Although not initially an equal franchise, the comparative narrowness of the period 1866-1881 when men, but not women, had the vote, is something for the Isle of Man to celebrate.

Secondly, although the Isle of Man gained increased fiscal autonomy, and a role for Tynwald in how it was exercised, the Manx constitution remained dominated by the Lieutenant-Governor, an appointee of the Crown. Ideas of responsible government, where executive authority was increasingly exercised by officers responsible to a locally elected assembly, were gaining ground, and being adopted in British North America (1848), and by New Zealand and most of Australia by 1859.

Responsible government was categorically, and deliberately, not intended to follow from elections. It was not until well into the twentieth century that responsible government came to the Isle of Man. The increased legitimacy the Keys gained from a democratic mandate had a significant role in this. As Lieutenant-Governor Hope foresaw in 1853, an elected Keys “would claim far greater and more arbitrary power … at issue with the British Government, [than] any Council consisting of Members nominated by the Crown”.

*Peter Edge is Professor of Law at Oxford Brookes University. His primary historical interest is the public law of the Isle of Man. His open access ebook Manx Public Law (1997) is available at tinyurl.com/kpz4rzv

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History of the University of Law

 The University of Law’s Guildford Centre (Braboeuf Manor)

Before discussing the specific history of the institution, we must look briefly to the 18th and 19th Century history of legal education in general.

An early regulator asserting some form of professional control on solicitors was the Society of Gentleman Practisers in the Courts of Law and Equity, which was established in 1729 (for a full discussion of this regulatory development and Articled Clerks in general, please see my blog post on the History of the Training Contract). This body had the aim of improving the standards and reputation of solicitors.

In 1823, several attorneys related to this group desired the establishment of the London Law Institution, again to ensure good practice amongst solicitors. The Law Institution was established in 1825 (London having been dropped), although its full formal title was the Society of Attorneys, Solicitors, Proctors and others not being Barristers, practising in the Courts of Law and Equity of the United Kingdom. By 1903, it had changed its name to the Law Society, although it had been colloquially known as this for years beforehand.

The Law Society began lectures for Articled Clerks in 1833. However, mandatory requirements as to examination before entering, and during, your Clerkship were not introduced until 1860 and practical powers to conduct these examinations were not given to the Law Society until 1877. Initially, the Law Society employed a staggering 3 lecturers who each gave between 9 and 12 lectures annually. By 1863, tutorials were offered to support smaller groups of students and in 1879 a 4th lecturer was hired. Furthermore, in 1893, 2 tutors were hired to assist specifically with the tutorials.

The Law Society had an extensive library which was open every day between 9am and 9pm (except for a summer term when it closed at 6pm, or on Saturdays when it closed at 4pm). Articled Clerks were allowed to access the materials if they paid an annual subscription of £2.

This development built up to the Law Society opening its School of Law in 1903, an institution which by 1908 had 10 employees. In a trend as old as education itself, attendance at the Society’s lectures was low and actually declined due to the intense competition of a private legal tutorial firm, Gibson & Weldon, who opened their doors in 1876. Students were not obligated to attend lectures and 88% of those who took the Law Society’s examinations attended none of the Society’s lectures.

In 1922, the Law Society required a mandatory year of lectures before sitting the middle of 3 examinations, the Intermediate Examination. Gibson & Weldon was the Law Society’s fiercest competitor and the Society negotiated a merger between them and its School of Law in 1962. The combined body was called the College of Law. The College was created in its official legal form by a Royal Charter of 1975.

In a trend that has continued, the tuition fee for a 1 year course at the College of Law was expensive; £914 in 1979 and for full-time Legal Practice Courses (a course replacing the old Final Examination) starting in September 2015; £14,750 at the London centres. A major change to the College of Law occurred in 2012 when it was granted full University status and changed its name to the University of Law. The re-branding and implications of this change are still being implemented as at 2015 and are likely to continue for several years to come.

From 1962 and over the following decades, the College of Law established itself as the premier provider of legal education and is a universally known and respected name amongst the legal profession. A range of centres were opened at locations across the UK, alongside the offering of a variety of courses. The University of Law now offers an undergraduate LLB law degree and has recently announced an MSc Masters degree in Law, Business and Management.

The University continues to be at the forefront of legal education and is heavily involved in the development, facilitation and improvement of the provision of, and access to, legal education. For example, through its fledgling Legal Services apprenticeships and a foundation course enabling international students, on completion, to study at undergraduate level at the University.

The University of Law is an institution with deep historical roots and, considering the dynamic changes in the regulation of legal education and changes in how the legal profession needs to operate to thrive, we may see further changes in decades to come.

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Pirate Executions in Early Modern London

In the East London neighborhood of Wapping behind the Town of Ramsgate Pub lies a replica of a noose and hanging scaffold. This commemorates Execution Dock, most famous as the spot where pirates were hung for their crimes in early modern London.  Execution Dock was a place of execution for over four hundred years: the last execution to take place there was 1830.  Execution Dock served as the site for all fatally condemned maritime criminals, but the cruelest treatment was reserved for those to be hung for piracy.

‘A Perspective View of the River Thames’, 1780 (Photo courtesy of National Maritime Museum, PAD1370)

During the early modern period, the vast majority of criminals who awaited a fatal punishment were jailed in Newgate (now the location of the Old Bailey Central Criminal Court) and carted to Tyburn for a public hanging (now the location of Marble Arch).  Pirates and other maritime criminals, however, were instead often housed at Marshalsea Prison and carted southeast to Wapping for a public execution at Execution Dock.  Traditionally in English history, people were often executed at the place in which their crime occurred.  This was especially true with highwaymen, but over time the majority of criminal executions happened locally at Tyburn after incarceration in Newgate.  Pirates and other maritime criminals, however, still received traditional execution treatment by being carted down to the banks of the Thames. The Admiralty used Execution Dock as the symbolic location of the sea in which pirates committed their crimes.   

The High Court of Admiralty carried out the processes of pirates’ executions.  Initially established in the fourteenth century for early maritime legalities such as trade and funding overseas expeditions, the Admiralty Court had complete jurisdiction over maritime crimes by the mid-seventeenth centuries.  Once a pirate was captured, he was taken prisoner and shipped back to London to await trial and condemnation. Known as hostis humanis generis (enemies of all mankind), a pirate was immediately considered to be guilty before facing his trial.

The process of pirates’ executions had similarities to those hung at Tyburn, but there were key differences that set them apart from other criminals. As pirates were carted through the streets of London, they were led by a silver oar to symbolize the strength and authority of the Admiralty so all of London could see where the condemned were headed.  Once at the scaffold, the condemned pirate was expected to give the traditional ‘last dying speech,’ in which he would confess and atone for his crimes and warn others away from falling into his wicked way of life.  Pirates, notorious for their rebellious behaviour, sometimes used their speech as an opportunity to admonish cruel superiors.  

When this ritual was completed, the pirate would be hung by the neck until dead. However, his punishment was not a quick death. Nooses reserved for pirates were shorter than usual, causing a shorter drop and thus death by strangulation rather than a broken neck. This ritual became known as the ‘Marshal’s Dance’ because of the way the body would thrash around due to asphyxiation.  Generally, after a person’s execution, they were cut down from the scaffold immediately, but this was not so for pirates. The bodies of condemned pirates continued to hang at Execution Dock for a total of three tides to serve as a warning.  The most extreme case of this was of Captain William Kidd, executed for murder and piracy on the high seas, whose body remained strung up in the gibbets for three years to serve as a warning to other pirates.

‘A Pirate Hanged at Execution Dock’, c. 1795 (Photo courtesy of the National Maritime Museum, PAJ 0887)

Pirates were unperturbed by these gruesome warnings.  By the turn of the eighteenth century, pirates had grown so numerous that it became nearly impossible to transport captured pirates back to London because of the lack of an organized navy and the economic drain of transportation. After the British secured their Caribbean colonies from the 1670 Treaty of Madrid, which stipulated that the British would rid the seas of piracy, they decided to establish Admiralty Courts in Port Royal, Jamaica and colonial North America (Boston, Providence and Charleston). This allowed British legal jurisdiction to grab a firm foothold in their overseas colonies whilst regaining maritime order. It is no coincidence that Admiralty Courts were established in Jamaica right after the 1692 earthquake that nearly leveled the island. The complete rebuilding of Jamaica transformed the island from pirate haven to a ‘civil’ society.

The establishment of Admiralty Courts in North America had a large impact because for decades, local governors enjoyed amicable relationships with pirates until 1698. The Navigation Acts of 1660, which required all goods traded with British colonies in the Caribbean and North America to sail through England whilst barring North America from trading with other nations, encouraged smuggling and acts of piracy. Pirates would plunder ships, sell goods along the eastern seaboard and thus enjoy a bit of autonomy.  These happy privileges would end in 1698 when the Act for the More Effectual Suppression of Piracy was passed.  This Act created official legal definitions of piracy and allowed for them to be lawfully ‘examined, inquired of, tried, heard and determined, and adjudged in any place at sea, or upon the land, in any of his Majesty’s islands, plantations, colonies, dominions, forts, or factories.’  This law expanded the Admiralty’s jurisdiction to the Caribbean and North American colonies.  These new laws along with the establishment of overseas Admiralty Courts caused a rapid decline of piracy until it was virtually eradicated from the Atlantic World by 1730.

Rebecca Simon, PhD Researcher, King’s College London, Department of History

Rebecca is based at King’s College London, researching the link between pirate executions and British sovereignty in the early modern Atlantic world. Prior to coming to Kings she earned an MA at California State University Northridge where she researched perceptions of piracy through the novel Treasure Island.

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