Legal aid for the police

This blog was originally published in May 2012

The press this week has been full of comment on impending plans to alter the Legal Aid frame work.  Barristers have raised their concerns ( and there have been on line e-petitions (  Legal aid is considered by many to be a figment of modern criminal justice, in fact legal aid, of sorts, dates back to the creation of the ‘new police’ in the 1820s.

When the ‘new police’ were created by Peel the requirements were for recruits to be under 35 years old, not less than five feet seven inches in height and should be able to read and write as well as being fit and healthy.   This at least meant that the policemen of the day would look the part, a fact commented upon by Peel himself who, on October 10th 1829 reported to his wife “I have been again busy all the morning about my police.  I think it is going very well.  The men look very smart and a strong contrast to the old Watchmen.”

In fact all we quite well until the constables made an arrest.  Due to the fact that there were no public prosecutors, the constables would be required to prosecute their own cases.  It would be fair to say that the policemen of the time had ‘limited’ legal and educational ability and would be faced with a hostile judge, magistrate, jury and array of solicitors who were well versed in legal procedure.  To make matters worse it was often the case that people of some wealth would hire defence counsel who would use loop holes and irregularities to ensure an acquittal for the client.

Due to the hostility of the people against the police there were many instances when the police, who had the law on their side, who, having failed to get a conviction, were forced to pay for the costs of the trial and when unable to do so found themselves being arrested and thrown into prison.  In the event of a defendant getting off on a ‘technicality’ the policeman was liable to be arrested, convicted and imprisoned for wrongful arrest or assault.

Occasionally the prosecuting policeman would be provided with ‘legal assistance’ by the Home Office.  There were also times when, in order to assist a colleague who was imprisoned, that Divisional colleagues would make a subscription to assist policeman concerned. 

So it would seem that a policeman’s lot in the late 1820s was not a happy lot.  Assaults and beating were regularly meted out and those on traffic patrol were often whipped or run down.  At least in modern time the police are protected by the same level of justice that is applicable to all…..aren’t they?

Sources – 
A History of Police in England & Wales 900 – 1988 TA Critchley (1967)
A Short History of the British Police (Reith (1948)
Policing and its Context 1750 – 1870 (Emsley, 1983)

Published by thebluelocust

Former police superintendent. Current university lecturer, police trainer and Director of Blue Locust Network Ltd

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