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ART. IV.-EMINENT MEMBERS OF THE BAR.
volume his “ Criticisms on the Bar,” which had first appeared in the columns of the “Examiner,” he declined to answer the objections to his publication made by barristers; admitting that he had heard no objections seriously stated, and argued to the fitness of subjecting barristers to critical inquiry, except from barristers themselves.” Since his day the spirit of the bar has improved. Every member, who was the subject of his criticism, has disappeared from the list of advocates; many have since adorned the bench; some still live to adorn the senate. Fair and honest criticism was found not injurious to a Scarlett, a Best, a Piggot, a Gifford, a Denman, a Copley, a Romilly or a Brougham. The false fear has given way to a sounder feeling,—the merits of contemporary leaders are freely canvassed, even among the barristers themselves, and there exists little prejudice and no reason against the notice by a legal publication of the rise and progress of successful living advocates; nor is there any cause why their vigour or their weakness should be left unchronicled till the subjects themselves have passed to the tomb. Much of instruction may be gathered from a candid and impartial inquiry,—much may be discussed whilst yet there exist the means of alteration or correction,much may be commended without any fair charge of flattery being sustainable. That a member has been successful is of itself a primâ facie evidence of professional as it is of other worth. That a man has risen to the head of his profession in the present day is at least a strong presumption that his worth and his talents are generally recognized. Moreover that a man without family ties or party connections,—with nothing but his ability and his zeal to recommend him,-should become under the Whigs the first law officer of the crown is confirmation strong of talents well applied. Not from his position alone then, but for the varied particulars of his career, we now select for notice and for comment her Majesty's Attorney-General, Sir Alexander James Edmund Cockburn.
In the year 1823, in his second year, Mr. Cockburn was a prizeman for the best exercises in English and Latin, and received the prize for English essays at Trinity Hall, Cambridge; in 1825 he was a fellow-commoner ; he there attained the degree of B.C.L.; and in 1829 became one of the fellows. In the same year he was called to the bar by the Society of the Middle Temple, choosing for his circuit the Western, and for his sessions the Devon. Of that society he is now a bencher.
Twenty years ago, junior barristers had as great a difficulty to be brought into notice at Westminster Hall as they have at this day; but sessions practice was then more abundant. The new law of settlement had not reduced parish appeals to a minimum. The sessions tried many cases which in practice have been more recently reserved for the assizes. Thus many juniors became well known at their district sessions, whose names even were never mentioned in the superior courts. The Devon sessions in particular had been famous for the strength of the bar, Follett himself having been the leader. It was a good school for men who were afterwards to rise; and we fancy that we see in the Attorney-General marks, not a few, of his western training
Three years after his call, the Reform Bill passed, which completely altered the law, not only of the franchise, but as to the mode of ascertaining the right to vote; and the petitions, which followed the general election of the winter of that year, gave rise to a large number of new questions for the decision of the election committees, one of which alone occupied the attention of several. Had it been otherwise decided, and if the right of the committees of the House to inquire into the qualification of the voter had not been confined to the cases, which had been subject to the previous decision of the revising barrister at the revision courts, one of the most valuable changes made by the new law would have been rendered futile. The decisions of the election committees, subsequently to the reports of Messrs. Daniel and Corbett in 1821, had not been reported. The intermission had been “ found to be productive of great inconvenience to the profession;" and Mr. Cockburn, in conjunction with another member of the western circuit, Mr. Rowe, now queen's counsel and recorder of Plymouth, undertook to begin a new series. In the preface they state that “they could have much wished to have followed the example of Mr. Douglas and Mr. Peckwell, in giving an introductory digest of the result and effect of the different decisions;" but the extent of the changes introduced by the new law, both in principle and practice, was so great, that no time was to be lost in publishing the most important points as they severally arose. Accordingly the volume was issued in parts, and we are left without that summary which the logical conciseness of one of the editors could well have supplied. Of the way in which these reports were composed, we have a fair test in the contemporary reports of Perry and Knapp. Both are skilful abridgments of the evidence and of the arguments; but to Cockburn and Rowe's belongs the superior merit of perspicuity, without elaboration, and of greater facility of reference. The volume is less known than that of Perry and Knapp, because the latter has been continued in an uninterrupted series down to the parliament of 1847,--like the ten years' parliaments preceding the Reform Bill wholly neglected by the reporters, to the manifest injury of all future practitioners before the election committees, --whilst the work of Cockburn and Rowe ceased on the completion of a single volume.
The session of 1833 also brought Mr. Cockburn his first brief as a parliamentary counsel. On the 26th March, with Mr. Beavan as agent, he appeared as junior counsel for the sitting members for Coventry, Mr. Henry Lytton Bulwer and Mr. Edward Ellice, the secretary to the treasury; in the same session he was junior to Sir W. Follett in the Lincoln and Dover petitions, in each case for the sitting members. The cases were out of the ordinary run of petitions. In all three the qualification of the candidate was disputed, and no little legal ingenuity was required to show the legal qualification ; whilst in the Coventry case the seats had to be saved notwithstanding the misconduct of the sheriffs, which was specially reported to the House, and notwithstanding the existence of serious riots. In all three cases the seats were saved, the questions as to the qualification had been argued by the leaders, giving little opportunity for any junior to display his ability. On the question of riot, however, and on the right of the sitting member to cross-examine a returning officer who was called only to produce the poll, the junior had the opportunity of showing the “stuff he was made of.” The exertions of the advocate were not forgotten by the immediate client who had the power, and, as it proved, the inclination to reward. On the 18th July, 1834, the corporation commission was issued to inquire and report on the state of the corporations in England and Wales. Among the commissioners was Mr. Cockburn; and to him, in conjunction with Mr. Whitcombe and Mr. Rushton, the late police magistrate of Liverpool—than whom no one deserved and few obtained more lasting or more sincere marks of universal esteem-was assigned the North-Midland circuit, comprising, amongst others, the then notorious corporations of Leicester, Warwick and Nottingham. The task was not easy; the corporators were not facile in their proceedings; the acts of themselves and their predecessors, when exposed to public
view, would not stand the light of modern criticism or of more recent reforming notions; the task was, nevertheless, well performed. The general report of the commissioners, with the protest of Sir Francis Palgrave, is well known; and the three thick volumes of appendix containing the district reports, give a mass of information which could have been collected by no other means. The reports on Bridgenorth, Derby, Newark, Newcastle-under-Line, Retford, Stafford, Shrewsbury and Wenlock are the joint production of Mr. Rushton and Mr. Cockburn, and display a searching fulness and clearness, which we are inclined to ascribe largely to the painstaking carefulness of Mr. Rushton. The reports on Coventry, Leicester, Nottingham and Warwick are by Mr. Cockburn and Mr. Whitcombe. To Mr. Cockburn solely belong the reports on Bewdley, Kidderminster, Newport, Shropshire, Sutton-Coldfield, Tamworth and Walsall. They are drawn up with a scrupulous attention to impartiality; and whether the electioneering sale of the Bewdley seats be set forth in all its deformity, or the courtesy and openness of the Tamworth corporators be commended, there is a fairness and a firmness which well mark the character of the commissioner; yet the reports will not bear comparison with the joint productions in other parts of the district; they are less ample in some of their details, and they have evidently had less care bestowed on their composition.
His employment on this commission brought his merits prominently to the notice of Mr. Joseph Parkes, at that time the astute head of the parliamentary election agents on the side of the Whigs. A more acute client or a firmer friend no barrister could find; and, instructed by him, during the session of 1835 Mr. Cockburn appeared for the sitting member for Canterbury in the first petition, and for the petitioners in the second. He also held a junior brief, but had to pull the labouring oar in the New Windsor petition, acquitting himself with a quickness and tact which often carried the committee with him on points at least extremely doubtful.
During the same parliament the railway bills began to form a prominent feature, and to increase largely the practice of parliamentary counsel. The lion's share of the retainers undoubtedly fell to Mr. Austin ; and no one will deny that his peculiarly persuasive manner, his dexterous dealing with hostile witnesses, and his quick perception of the prejudices or the weakness of each particular member of the committee, rendered him amply deserving of the “ golden fee” which company after company poured into his clerk's accounts. The position of a counsel before the committees of either House is indeed pe
culiar : he needs more tact and manner than law, and more persuasion than eloquence. A barrister may succeed beyond all his competitors,
“ though some plead better, with more law than he;" yet there must be enough of eloquence to please and to convince; enough of law to keep the evidence within reasonable bounds; enough of experience to be able to refer with readiness to other decisions of other committees, and to known rules of practice there and elsewhere; enough of firmness to restrain the private or party fancies of individual members of the particular tribunal ; enough of casuistry not to allow your opponent's case to break down the weak parts of your own; and, withal, a dexterity in not allowing that casuistry to be detected; and these qualities must be varied with each varying committee. Many of the modes by which a nisi prius advocate obtains his success are not only worthless but injurious. Distortions of fact are most dangerous; appeals to the passions fail of effect; declamation is utterly ruinous to the declaimer. The critical acumen of an accomplished arguer in banco, and the nice discrimination or distinctions of decided cases, are wholly out of place. Conciseness and logical accuracy, which tell upon the mind of a single judge, are lost within the four walls of a committee-room. Moreover, there are generally two or three members who really understand the question to be decided ; a few who fancy that they know more than all the others put together; and many who think the whole affair a bore, and who neither know nor care to know much of the matter to be decided ; and in election committees, under the old system, when the “ brains had been knocked out” by the respective agents, there was a party majority to contend with, when, to use an expression of a late honourable member," he had voted against his party on one division, and he would take care not to do it again.”
Such was the nature of the tribunals before which Mr. Cockburn appeared. Receiving a fair proportion of all the good things that fell to the lot of the “lucky few,” he fully understood the character of these tribunals, and he as fully succeeded in doing justice to his clients. Occasionally there was shown a little infirmity of temper which told against him for the moment; and though he was less dexterous at fence than some of his colleagues, and less forcible in attack, he had one most distinct and excellent qualification, “ undaunted courage;" he was seldom to be foiled, never to be put down : his first employment in parliament was in defence of the seat, and his great character