Case Citations and Personal Law Libraries, pre-1836

From the Freeman’s Journal, 1 September 1890:

“Modern text books now enable practitioners to dispense with much memorised learning laboriously acquired in former days… Within the recollection of men still living the library at the Four Courts did not exist, and it was considered a breach of etiquette to bring a law book into court, the judges being supposed to know all the cases on the mere names being cited. Nowadays the multiplication of reports has compelled Bench and Bar to abandon the pretence that any lawyer knows the law, i.e. carries in his head the thousands of decisions which complicate the administration of justice.

There was another reason why it was not a good idea to refer to books in court in the early days of the Four Courts. In an era of intense competition between lawyers for the best private law library, to refer to a book with which the judge was not familiar could be taken as a personal affront.

Barristers too could be insulted by remarks made by judges about their libraries! The Freeman, 11 January 1896 describes the bibliophile judge Sir Hercules Langrishe (later to provide the nucleus of the library of the Honourable Society of King’s Inns) as

“chiefly remembered for a hasty and inconsiderate remark made by him to [John Philpot] Curran when arguing a case as a very young man. Curran observed that he had consulted all his law books, whereupon the judge said ‘I suspect, sir, that your law library is rather contracted.‘”

Curran’s reply was as follows

“It is very true, my lord, that I am poor, and the circumstances have rather curtailed my library… I have prepared myself for this high profession rather by the study of a few books than by the composition of a great many bad ones. I am not ashamed of my poverty… many an example shows me that an ill-acquired elevation by making me the more conspicuous would only make me the more universally contemptuous.”

Ouch! I suspect that, like a lot of quotes attributed to Curran, this was made up after the event. It does, however, serve to illustrate how, prior to the establishment of the first Law Library in the 1830s, the status of a barrister was inextricably linked to the quality of that barrister’s own personal law book collection!

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Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

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