Law, Liberty and the Constitution: A Brief History of the Common Law

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Boydell & Brewer Ltd, 2015 - Law - 352 pages
Throughout English history the rule of law and the preservation of liberty have been inseparable, and both are intrinsic to England's constitution. This accessible and entertaining history traces the growth of the law from its beginnings in Anglo-Saxon times to the present day. It shows how the law evolved from a means of ensuring order and limiting feuds to become a supremely sophisticated dispenser of justice and the primary guardian of civil liberties. This development owed much to the English kings and their judiciary, who, in the twelfth century, forged a unified system of law - predating that of any other European country - from almost wholly Anglo-Saxon elements. Yet by the seventeenth century this royal offspring - Oedipus Lex it could be called - was capable of regicide. Since then the law has had a somewhat fractious relationship with that institution upon which the regal mantle of supreme power descended, Parliament.
This book tells the story of the common law not merely by describing major developments but by concentrating on prominent personalities and decisive cases relating to the constitution, criminal jurisprudence, and civil liberties. It investigates the great constitutional conflicts, the rise of advocacy, and curious and important cases relating to slavery, insanity, obscenity, cannibalism, the death penalty, and miscarriages of justice. The book concludes by examining the extension of the law into the prosecution of war criminals and protection of universal human rights and the threats posed by over-reaction to national emergencies and terrorism. Devoid of jargon and replete with good stories, Law, Liberty and the Constitution represents a new approach to the telling of legal history and will be of interest to anyone wishing to know more about the common law - the spinal cord of the English body politic.

Harry Potter is a former fellow of Selwyn College, Cambridge and a practising barrister specialising in criminal defence. He has authored books on the death penalty and Scottish history and wrote and presented an award-winning series on the history of the common law for the BBC.

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A book on the history of the common law that is actually interesting, even riveting, and for the general public is quite a achievement. This one fits the bill and fills a lucuna. Beginning with the Anglo-Saxon period it storms through the ages to end up at the present day, it is replete with fascinating detail, extraordinary characters, and cases on slavery, insanity, and survival cannibalism among others. It covers a wealth of material in a most palatable form. Thomas Erskine is the star barrister, defending dissident writers such as Thomas Paine, and those accused of constructive treason in a nation paranoid in the wake of the French Revolution, and effectively defining the law on insanity. He is joined by William Garrow, a pioneer of cross-examination, Marshall Hall known as the Apollo of the bar, who could provoke hysteria by his forensic performances, and Norman Birkett who helped define the law on war crimes at Nuremberg. Throughout runs the thread of hard won liberties and freedoms defined and defended by our legal system, and enshrined in our constitutions
The emphasis is very much on its development in England, but its importance to other common law jurisdictions, and the United States in particular, is obvious.
In this the eight hundredth anniversary year of Magna Carta (about which it has a brilliant resume), this publication is most apposite and a compelling read. A indispensable vademecum, with an engaging turn of phrase



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