Right of Access to Police Courts.
On many occasions during the next few months I visited all the Courts of justice in the City of Bristol. The pages of The Bristolian were filled with the details of offences that I felt worthy of reporting; but this act and my constant persistence had the result that on the way I gathered a reputation which put on guard many of the residing Magistrates. It is clear that some were very good at their task but most could only be considered grossly incompetent. At Lawford Gate I was violently ejected by an officer named Atkins. It is a sober thought that illustrates the task I had set myself that later at the Bristol Sessions where he appeared on the charge of assaulting me, the residing chairman of the bench on being told that I was the editor of The Bristolian; read to the jury some carefully selected, and out of context comments that I made on the Bristol magistracy,and he then openly expressed the opinion that “a man who held such views deserved to be ejected.” The wheels within wheels with each looking after its own kind was most evident. This made me more determined to battle to open all Court proceedings to public scrutiny. During the months of June and July 1827, I was ejected and assaulted on numerous occasions by officers of the Court. Things got so bad that for a time I felt it prudent to avoid making my presence at some courts and obtain my newspaper copy by other means. To this end I opened my Bristolian Office to the Public as a ‘Justice Room.’ and was known as the ‘Bristolian Court of Enquiry.’ At this pseudo Court, I and members of the public, attended each day between 12 noon and 4 p.m. for the purpose of recording the details of cases dealt with earlier at the Council House. All those present in the Court were invited to report what had transpired, with any evidence given on oath.
To gain as wide a publicity as possible on this matter I inserted the following letter in the Bristol Morning Chronicle:-
RIGHT OF ACCESS TO POLICE COURTS
(TO THE EDITOR OF THE MORNING CHRONICLE.)
SIR — At the Bristol Sessions yesterday, I again originated a case, on which the right of the public to access to Police Courts may be tried, by preferring a Bill of Indictment against the Mayor of this City, and Wm. Barrell, an officer attached to the River Police, for an assault; the former having ordered my ejection from the Justice Room on the 14th June last, pending a case of final adjudication: and the latter in having grasped my arm in execution of such illegal order. The grand Jury was composed of a body of highly respectable and intelligent gentlemen; and although the determined opposition of a few of its members protracted their decision for nearly two hours, they eventually returned to the Crown with a true bill. Immediately afterwards I applied, as a matter of course, to the Clerk of the Arraigns, for warrants against the parties — compliance with which having been refused by that Officer, I addressed the Court in complaint of such dereliction of his duty. In pursuing such a course, I regretted having been compelled to do so by absurd partiality of an underling of office, who on a former occasion had procured me the warrant without the slightest hesitation. I admitted that then, indeed the defendant was but a poor constable, and the instrument of the Magistrate; whilst in the present indictment, the Worshipful delinquent had been connected with his less Worshipful, and somewhat less culpable associate.
I express my hope that the Court would not sanction a distinction in the quality, rank or wealth of delinquents brought before it, and that the obstruction to the due course of justice created by the Clerk of Arraigns would be forthwith removed by the Court itself. The Town Clerk (Serjeant Ludlow) commented with wholesome severity on the conduct of the Clerk of Arraigns, and decided that I was entitled to the warrant as of course.
I stated that, out of respect to the feelings of his brother Magistrates, I would willingly waive my right to a warrant against Alderman Fripp, if any other course could be suggested by the Worshipful Gentlemen on the Bench which should be calculated for the attainment of the legal object of my application — the subsequent pleading of the parties to charges preferred against them by me, and sanctioned by the finding of the Grand Jury.
The Mayor decided, that there could not possibly be a distinction made, and regretting the circumstances of any impediment having been thrown in my way, ordered the Clerk of Arraigns to prepare the warrants forthwith, which having been done, they were delivered to me.
I regret to add, that I in a vain attempt to call the attention of the Court to another difficulty with which I had to contend, through the determined obstinacy of the officer to whom I have before referred, I allude to his former refusal to prepare the indictment on my written instructions — on which subject I thought it would have been well to have elicited the opinion of his superiors,
I am, Sir, you obliged servant,
The eventual outcome of this endeavour was nil – the Jury quitting the defendants as no case to answer.
In due course I subsequently learnt that the Corporation solicitors, Messes. Brice and Burges, were consulting and giving advice to the Magistrates as to the propriety and legality of their ordering me to be excluded from the Justice Room in consequence of my gross misconduct(!!!) on the occasion of my attending to take notes of the proceedings.
It is now clear that in conference that they decided I had no right to be present at examinations in cases of felony, but that as to my right to attend the meetings for the public business there was much doubt, but that at all events unless I conducted myself with decency and propriety at the latter meeting it would be right to order me to quit the room. All points that I fully concur with, but continue to insist that it is customary to permit the public their attendance during any final adjudication.