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Open Data as a Human Right: the Case of Case-Law

- July 27, 2016 in Case law, justice, law, Open Data

This blog post was written by Simon Matet and Antoine Dusséaux. French version follows the English one Open data is sometimes considered first as a way to foster economic growth through the development of innovative services built on public data. However, beyond this economic perspective, important though it may be, access to public sector information should be seen first and foremost as an unprecedented opportunity to bridge the gap between the government and its citizens. By providing a better access to fundamental public services and promoting transparency and accountability, open data has the potential to guarantee a greater respect of fundamental human rights. In this respect, access to case-law (the law developed by judges through court decisions) could become a pioneering application of open data to improve our democratic societies. According to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), publicity of court decisions, “by making the administration of justice transparent”, is a condition for a fair trial, the guarantee of which is one of the fundamental principles of any democratic society. There is no concrete publicity without a free access for any citizen to court records. This is why the ECHR considers that the ability for any citizen to obtain copies of judgments, without the need to show a legitimate interest, “protects litigants against the administration of justice in secret” and “is also one of the means whereby confidence in the courts can be maintained”. Furthermore, according to the European Parliament, “certain aspects of (in)accessibility of Court files cause serious legal problems, and may, arguably, even violate internationally recognised fundamental human rights, such as equality of arms.” For those reasons, all over the world, diffusion of case law is a public service task. However, accessing court documents can prove a daunting task for untrained, private citizens, reporters, and NGOs. In some countries, corporations or charities have captured the market of access to judicial precedents as governments proved unable or unwilling to fulfill this key mission. For instance, an important part of English judge-made law is owned by a private charity, the Incorporated Council of Law Reporting. In others, decisions are sold by courts to private legal publishers. For example, the Administrative Office of the US Courts collects $145 million in fees to access court records, every year. As a result, citizens usually only have access to a small selection of court decisions. However, modern communication technologies and digitization now make it possible to provide free online access to millions of public court documents. Open legal data would guarantee the respect of fundamental rights and also increase legal certainty. Indeed not only do citizens need to know the law, in codes and statutes, they also need to understand the concrete application and interpretation of the law by courts. Therefore, a free access to court records can help litigants to prepare their trials, for instance while assessing the opportunity of a negotiation. In the 21st century, the Internet must be seen as a valuable opportunity to enhance the transparency of the judiciary and improve legal certainty. Open data of jurisprudence shows that behind the mere economic gains, access and reuse of public sector information is a fundamental instrument for extending the right to knowledge, which is a basic principle of democracy, and is a matter of human rights in the information age. The judiciary should not be left behind the ongoing digital transformation of public policies. In this domain, some countries, such as the Netherlands, have already made great efforts to provide a free access to citizens to a large amount of court decisions, while respecting litigants’ privacy, but most countries still have a long way to go. Although access to legislation is already included in the Open Data Index by Open Knowledge, it only requires all national laws and statutes to be available online, and not judge-made law. Since case law is an important source of law, especially in countries of common law tradition, it should be included in the legislation dataset in future versions of the Open Data Index.

Open data de la jurisprudence : un droit fondamental à l’heure d’internet

L’open data est souvent considéré d’abord comme un moyen de libérer de la croissance en permettant le développement de services innovants autour des données publiques. Néanmoins, au-delà de ce seul aspect économique, aussi important soit-il, la diffusion des données publiques est aussi et surtout un formidable outil pour réduire la distance entre l’État et les citoyens. L’ouverture des données publiques permet en effet de garantir un meilleur accès aux services publics et un plus grand respect des droits humains fondamentaux. Le cas de la jurisprudence est révélateur de ces enjeux démocratiques. En effet, la Cour européenne des droits de l’homme (CEDH) a rappelé que la publicité des débats judiciaires, « par la transparence qu’elle donne à l’administration de la justice », était une condition sine qua non du droit à un procès équitable dont la garantie compte parmi les principes fondamentaux de toute société démocratique. Or, il ne peut y avoir de véritable publicité des débats judiciaires sans un accès libre à la jurisprudence. C’est pourquoi la CEDH considère que la possibilité pour n’importe quel citoyen, sans qu’il ait à justifier d’un intérêt légitime, de demander une copie des décisions de justice, y compris non définitives, au greffe du tribunal (sauf cas particuliers prévus par la loi comme le huis clos) « protège les justiciables contre une justice secrète échappant au contrôle du public » et « constitue l’un des moyens de contribuer à préserver la confiance dans les cours et tribunaux ». En France, alors que selon le Conseil d’État, la diffusion de la jurisprudence « constitu[e], par nature, une mission de service public au bon accomplissement de laquelle il appartient à l’État de veiller », il est dans la pratique long et compliqué pour un citoyen d’accéder aux décisions de justice, tant les greffes des tribunaux sont surchargés. Face à ces difficultés, cette mission de service public a, de fait, été confiée à quelques acteurs privés. Ainsi, les justiciables, en particulier les moins fortunés d’entre eux, n’ont gratuitement accès qu’à 1% de la production jurisprudentielle française sur Légifrance, service public de la diffusion du droit. Le reste des décisions est parfois vendu. C’est le cas par exemple de la base exhaustive des décisions civiles des cours d’appel judiciaires détenue par la Cour de cassation. Néanmoins, les outils numériques sont désormais à même de développer et de faciliter l’accès libre des citoyens à toutes les décisions de justice. La mise à disposition en open data de la jurisprudence permettrait d’une part de garantir le respect des droits fondamentaux et d’autre part de renforcer la sécurité juridique des citoyens et des entreprises. En effet, les citoyens doivent non seulement connaître la règle de droit, mais aussi son interprétation par les tribunaux. La connaissance de la jurisprudence constitue ainsi un enjeu important car elle permet d’aider les justiciables dans la préparation de leur procès, par exemple en appréciant la possibilité d’une solution à l’amiable et négociée de leur litige. Jusqu’à présent, la transformation numérique a surtout concerné le secteur privé. Les politiques publiques sont désormais impliquées et la justice ne doit pas passer à côté de ces évolutions. Ainsi au XXIe siècle, Internet doit être perçu comme une occasion précieuse pour accroître la transparence du pouvoir judiciaire et améliorer la sécurité juridique des justiciables. Le Projet de loi pour une République numérique a fait avancer ce sujet au Sénat en posant le principe de la diffusion exhaustive de la production jurisprudentielle française, important progrès pour l’accès au droit. Cependant, des inquiétudes demeurent quant à son implémentation exacte. La rédaction actuelle de la loi prévoit en effet une analyse de risque systématique sur la ré-identification, charge immense pour les juridictions, alors que la CNIL s’est déjà prononcée sur l’anonymisation des décisions de justice, ce qui a permis d’ouvrir certaines bases de jurisprudence, comme cela se fait ailleurs en Europe. Il appartient désormais aux pouvoirs publics d’implémenter judicieusement cette loi en décret de sorte qu’elle soit applicable et appliquée et ne demeure pas lettre morte du fait de détails technico-légaux. L’open data juridique prouve ainsi qu’au-delà des seuls enjeux économiques, la diffusion des données publiques est un instrument essentiel pour développer le droit à la connaissance, principe fondamental de la démocratie, et garantir le respect des droits de l’homme, vus à l’aune d’internet.

Riutilizzo dell’informazione giuridica: il progetto JurisWiki

- May 21, 2015 in diritto, interviste, JurisWiki, law, legal content, Open Content, Open Data, Open Government Data, openaccess, openknowledge, PSI, Riuso

Il fenomeno dell’open content si è soffermato principalmente sugli open data, poiché per certi versi consentono una maggiore semplicità di approccio rispetto ad altri tipi di informazioni. E’ il caso dell’informazione giuridica, che non è mai dato a sé stante, ma complesso articolato di espressioni linguistiche: leggi e decisioni dei giudici, nell’immaginario collettivo, non vengono facilmente […]

Riutilizzo dell’informazione giuridica: il progetto JurisWiki

- May 21, 2015 in diritto, interviste, JurisWiki, law, legal content, Open Content, Open Data, Open Government Data, openaccess, openknowledge, PSI, Riuso

Il fenomeno dell’open content si è soffermato principalmente sugli open data, poiché per certi versi consentono una maggiore semplicità di approccio rispetto ad altri tipi di informazioni. E’ il caso dell’informazione giuridica, che non è mai dato a sé stante, ma complesso articolato di espressioni linguistiche: leggi e decisioni dei giudici, nell’immaginario collettivo, non vengono facilmente […]

Riutilizzo dell’informazione giuridica: il progetto JurisWiki

- May 21, 2015 in diritto, interviste, JurisWiki, law, legal content, Open Content, Open Data, Open Government Data, openaccess, openknowledge, PSI, Riuso

Il fenomeno dell’open content si è soffermato principalmente sugli open data, poiché per certi versi consentono una maggiore semplicità di approccio rispetto ad altri tipi di informazioni. E’ il caso dell’informazione giuridica, che non è mai dato a sé stante, ma complesso articolato di espressioni linguistiche: leggi e decisioni dei giudici, nell’immaginario collettivo, non vengono facilmente […]

Riutilizzo dell’informazione giuridica: il progetto JurisWiki

- May 21, 2015 in diritto, interviste, JurisWiki, law, legal content, Open Content, Open Data, Open Government Data, openaccess, openknowledge, PSI, Riuso

Il fenomeno dell’open content si è soffermato principalmente sugli open data, poiché per certi versi consentono una maggiore semplicità di approccio rispetto ad altri tipi di informazioni. E’ il caso dell’informazione giuridica, che non è mai dato a sé stante, ma complesso articolato di espressioni linguistiche: leggi e decisioni dei giudici, nell’immaginario collettivo, non vengono facilmente […]

Mrs Giacometti Prodgers, the Cabman’s Nemesis

- September 19, 2012 in Articles, courts, giacometti prodgers, hansom cab, History, law, richard burton

Heather Tweed explores the story of the woman whose obsessive penchant for the lawsuit struck fear into the magistrates and cabmen of Victorian London alike.

Cartoon from Punch magazine, March 6th 1875, pp.106: (Source)

Imagine, if you will, strolling towards a Hackney cabstand in late 19th century London. Suddenly the cry ‘Mother Prodgers!’ echoes around the streets. The cab drivers scarper, leaving the stand empty but for a seemingly innocuous, overdressed woman: Mrs Caroline Giacometti Prodgers, nemesis of cabmen, zealous litigant and infamous music hall conversation topic. Over the course of two decades she was to lead a one woman campaign against the notorioulsy truculent cabmen of London. She took to court the publisher of a major newspaper and even her own cook. Her stubbornness was caricatured in print and sung about in music halls. One desperate cab driver went so far as to burn her effigy on bonfire night. Her first taste of life in the courts came in 1871, when she began proceedings to divorce her husband of ten years, an Austrian naval captain called Giovanni Battista Giacometti. The case set a precedent for divorces in which the wife was wealthier than the husband (the Prodgers family found itself with a considerable fortune through her mother, a wealthy heiress whom her father, the Reverand Prodgers, had married after rescuing her from drowning). The details of Giacometti v Prodgers would regularly make the papers, including such oddities as Mrs Prodgers questioning the legitimacy of her own children, presumably in an attempt to try and disinherit Giovanni from her family fortune. Following the actual divorce there were other legal wranglings. It was reported that her husband Giovanni had given up his whole career at Mrs Prodgers’’ request and that, after the divorce, he had taken her to court over non payment of a yearly settlement. The Prodgers family, taking his side, agreed on an additional several hundred pounds per year. Mrs Prodgers found herself again in court after failing to pay a shorthand writer she had, debatably, hired during the divorce proceedings. It was soon after the divorce and its various spin off cases that Mrs Prodgers began her infamous crusade against London cab drivers. Her modus operandi was to catch a cab to a specific destination to which she knew the exact distance (she had familiarised herself with the cost charts), then ask the cabman to stop just at the point where the fare would change. Invariably the cabman would attempt to charge her for the next part of the fare, which she would dispute. One or other party would then threaten a lawsuit and she would continue to goad the often irate cabman into verbal abuse and swearing whereupon she’d immediately threaten another writ.

Chart of cab fares by distance from Waterloo Station: (Source)

She was remarkably successful and ended up bringing over 50 cases to court – many of which descended into farce. Reports on the various cases are packed with amusing incidents. There is extended banter over the use of her full name (which she always insisted upon). One judge suggests that it might be cheaper for her to purchase a carriage than keep returning to court. In addition to cab related litigations she was involved in a string of court cases regarding other matters. She sued her dismissed cook for refusing to leave her house (and continuing ‘to sing about the place’). She sued a newspaper publisher for accidentally tearing her dress during an altercation after she refused to pay the full penny for a paper (which she thought she might be mentioned in). She sued a watchmaker for returning the wrong watch to her house. Her obsessive and sometimes bizarre activity in the courts did not go unnoticed. In 1875 she had the dubious honour of having an effigy of her burnt on bonfire night, a ‘gigantic figure’ paraded around on a cab. The police intervened and arrested the cab driver – rather bizarrely on the charge of ‘begging’ (the accounts don’t report if Mrs Prodgers had any influence over the arrest). The judge dismissed the case saying that the cabbie was ‘acting as a showman for the amusement of the public’ and that it was merely meant as a joke. Mrs Giacometti Prodgers appeared several times in Punch magazine. A satirical piece in 1890, the year of her death, coincided with controversial plans to fit each Hackney cab with a mechanical device to measure distances and calculate the cost of each journey:
A Autumn-attic happaratus
For measuring off our blooming fares!
Oh, hang it all! They slang and slate us;
They say we crawls, and cheats, and swears.
And we surwives the sneering slaters,
Wot tries our games to circumvent,
But treating us like Try-yer-weighters,
Or chockerlate, or stamps, or scent!
Upon my soul the stingy dodgers
Did ought to be shut up. They’re wuss
Than Mrs. JACKERMETTY PRODGERS,
Who earned the ‘onest Cabman’s cuss.
It’s sickening! Ah, I tell yer wot, Sir,
Next they’ll stick hup―oh, you may smile―
This:―”Drop a shilling in the slot. Sir,
And the Cab goes for just two mile!”
Beastly! I ain’t no blessed babby,
Thus to be measured off like tape.
Yah! Make a autumn-attic Cabby,
With clock-work whip and a tin cape.
May as well, while you’re on the job, Sir.
And then―may rust upset yer works!
The poor man of his beer they’d rob, Sir,
Who’d rob poor Cabby of his perks!
Such was her notoriety that the reverse of her name, Sregdorpittemmocaig, was used for a character in The Sunless City, a novel by J.E. Preston and Punch punnily suggested that she had penned her own book after the Hansom cab: ‘Hansom Is As Hansom Does’. She also made it onto the pantomime circuit when comedian Herbert Campbell performed a verse about her:
‘All great men have their statues and it’s but their due,
But I wonder why the ladies don’t have them too;
If they did, to the Academy I’d like to send,
A bust of Mrs Prodgers the Cabman’s friend.
Of all the strong-minded females she’s the worst I ever saw,
Oh, wouldn’t she be lovely as a mother-in-law?
At the corner of every cab-rank her flag should be unfurled
As a horrible example to this wicked world.’
The press painted a picture of a formidable if eccentric woman who should be avoided at all costs if one did not wish to encounter her wrath. One might speculate that a certain amount of misogyny and sexism fuelled by the women’s suffrage movement may have played its part in the press coverage and urban mythology. Had she been a man might she have been hailed as a champion of consumer rights, rather than dismissed as a caricature?

Illustration of a funeral cab passing outside the Old Bailey, from Omnibuses and Cabs: their origin and history (1902), by Henry Charles Moore: (Source)

One person who seemed to take her seriously was the explorer and Victorian polymath Sir Richard Burton, who entertained her in his house, and reportedly supported her campaign. According to Burton’s biographer Thomas Wright two of Burton’s cousins had a running family joke about the relationship between Mrs Giacometti Prodgers and Sir Richard:
At the (Athenæum) club he was never at home to anybody except a certain Mrs. Giacometti Prodgers… according to rumour, there was a flavour of romance about her marriage. It was said that while the laws of certain countries regarded her as married, those of other countries insisted that she was still single. However, married or not, she concentrated all her spleen on cab-drivers,…and having a profound respect for Burton’s judgment, she often went to him about these cab disputes, and, oddly enough, though nobody else could get at him, he was always at the service of Mrs. Prodgers, and good-naturedly gave her the benefit of his wisdom. To the London magistrates the good lady was a perpetual terror, and Frederick Burton, a diligent newspaper reader, took a pleasure in following her experiences. “St. George,” he would call across the breakfast table, “Mrs. Giacometti Prodgers again: She’s had another cab-man up”.
Sadly first hand anecdotal evidence does nothing to alleviate the true awfulness of her character. She appears to have been as rude to fellow members of the public as she was to porters and cab drivers. Upon being offered a cup of tea by another passenger on a ship she was travelling on, she allegedly replied “I have only had afternoon tea once in my life, and that was with the Duke of Sutherland”. Her arrival in various ports around the world was often reported upon in the local press – followed by a sigh of relief when she departed. Unfortunately one has the impression the same might be said about her departure from life in 1890. Her obituary as reported in foreign papers was blunt and concise:
Mrs. Giacometti Prodgers, the terror of London cabmen, is dead. Her habit was to drive the fullest possible distance for the money, pay the exact legal fare, and then cause the arrest of the cabman for expressing his feelings.



Heather Tweed is a multimedia artist and educator based in the UK. She has exhibited pieces widely throughout the UK as well as in New York, Tokyo and the Library Of Congress in Washington. She has worked with organizations including The British Council Cairo, Bristol City Council and Arts & Business. The ever expanding installation ‘Anubis Other World Tour’ has been visiting art galleries, caves and other interesting venues scaring, delighting and perplexing in equal measure since 1997. Her website: www.heathertweed.co.uk

Links to Works


  • Section on Mrs Prodgers from Omnibuses and Cabs: their origin and history (1902), by Henry Charles Moore.
  • Cartoon ‘The Cabman’s Shelter’ from Punch magazine, March 6th 1875, pp.106
  • ‘The Groan of the Growler’, poem on Mrs Prodgers and the new automatic cab meter, from Punch, Vol. 99., August 23rd 1890
  • The London Hackney Cab Faros and Distances, Giving Nearly Thirteen Thousand Distances in Miles (1853), by The Commissioner of Police for the City of London.
  • Index to the streets, squares, and cab stands, comprised in Mogg’s new cab fare, distance map, and guide to London: containing three thousand places, with references to their several situations (n.d.), by Edward L. Mogg.






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Bugs and Beasts Before the Law

- March 27, 2011 in animal trials, Books, E.P. Evans, History, law, medieval law, Nicholas Humphrey, Public Domain, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals

Murderous pigs sent to the gallows, sparrows prosecuted for chattering in Church, a gang of thieving rats let off on a wholly technical acquittal – theoretical psychologist and author Nicholas Humphrey* explores the strange world of medieval animal trials. On 5 March 1986 some villagers near Malacca in Malaysia beat to death a dog, which they believed was one of a gang of thieves who transform themselves into animals to carry out their crimes. The story was reported on the front page of the London Financial Times. “When a dog bites a man,” it is said, “that’s not news; but when a man bites a dog, that is news”. Such stories, however, are apparently not news for very long. Indeed the most extraordinary examples of people taking retribution against animals seem to have been almost totally forgotten. A few years ago I lighted on a book, first published in 1906, with the surprising title The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals by E.P.Evans, author of Animal Symbolism in Ecclesiastical Architecture, Bugs and Beasts before the Law, etc., etc. The frontispiece showed an engraving of a pig, dressed up in a jacket and breeches, being strung up on a gallows in the market square of a town in Normandy in 1386; the pig had been formally tried and convicted of murder by the local court. When I borrowed the book from the Cambridge University Library, I showed this picture of the pig to the librarian. “Is it a joke?”, she asked. No, it was not a joke. All over Europe, throughout the middle-ages and right on into the 19th century, animals were, as it turns out, tried for human crimes. Dogs, pigs, cows, rats and even flies and caterpillars were arraigned in court on charges ranging from murder to obscenity. The trials were conducted with full ceremony: evidence was heard on both sides, witnesses were called, and in many cases the accused animal was granted a form of legal aid — a lawyer being appointed at the tax-payer’s expense to conduct the animal’s defence. In 1494, for example, near Clermont in France a young pig was arrested for having “strangled and defaced a child in its cradle”. Several witnesses were examined, who testified that “on the morning of Easter Day, the infant being left alone in its cradle, the said pig entered during the said time the said house and disfigured and ate the face and neck of the said child .. which in consequence departed this life.” Having weighed up the evidence and found no extenuating circumstances, the judge gave sentence:
We, in detestation and horror of the said crime, and to the end that an example may be made and justice maintained, have said, judged, sentenced, pronounced and appointed that the said porker, now detained as a prisoner and confined in the said abbey, shall be by the master of high works hanged and strangled on a gibbet of wood.
Evans’ book details more than two hundred such cases: sparrows being prosecuted for chattering in Church, a pig executed for stealing a communion wafer, a cock burnt at the stake for laying an egg. As I read my eyes grew wider and wider. Why did no one tell us this at school? Why were we taught so many dreary facts of history at school, and not taught these? We all know how King Canute attempted to stay the tide at Lambeth; but who has heard, for example, of the solemn threats made against the tides of locusts which threatened to engulf the countryside of France and Italy? The Pied Piper, who charmed the rats from Hamelin is a part of legend; but who has heard of Bartholomew Chassenée, a French jurist of the sixteenth century, who made his reputation at the bar as the defence counsel for some rats? The rats had been put on trial in the ecclesiastical court on the charge of having “feloniously eaten up and wantonly destroyed” the local barley. When the culprits did not in fact turn up in court on the appointed day, Chassenée made use of all his legal cunning to excuse them. They had, he urged in the first place, probably not received the summons since they moved from village to village; but even if they had received it they were probably too frightened to obey, since as everyone knew they were in danger of being set on by their mortal enemies the cats. On this point Chassenée addressed the court at some length, in order to show that if a person be cited to appear at a place to which he cannot come in safety, he may legally refuse. The judge, recognising the justice of this claim, but being unable to persuade the villagers to keep their cats indoors, was obliged to let the matter drop. For an animal found guilty, the penalty was dire. The Normandy pig, depicted in the frontispiece of the Evans book, was charged with having torn the face and arms of a baby in its cradle. The pig was sentenced to be “mangled and maimed in the head forelegs”, and then – dressed up in a jacket and breeches – to be hung from a gallows in the market square. But, as we have seen with Chassenée’s rats, the outcome of these trials was not inevitable. In doubtful cases the courts appear in general to have been lenient, on the principle of “innocent until proved guilty beyond reasonable doubt”. In 1587, a gang of weevils, accused of damaging a vineyard, were deemed to have been exercising their natural rights to eat – and, in compensation, were granted a vineyard of their own. In 1457 a sow was convicted of murder and sentenced to be “hanged by the hind feet from a gallows tree”. Her six piglets, being found stained with blood, were included in the indictment as accomplices. But no evidence was offered against them, and on account of their tender age they were acquitted. In 1750 a man and a she-ass were taken together in an act of buggery. The prosecution asked for the death sentence for both of them. After due process of law the man was sentenced, but the animal was let off on the ground that she was the victim of violence and had not participated in her master’s crime of her own free-will. The local priest gave evidence that he had known the said she-ass for four years, that she had always shown herself to be virtuous and well-behaved, that she had never given occasion of scandal to anyone, and that therefore he was “willing to bear witness that she is in word and deed and in all her habits of life a most honest creature.” What was the purpose of these lengthy and extravagant procedures? A desire for revenge cannot have been the only motive. Evans cites cases of inanimate objects being brought before the law. In Greece, a statue that fell on a man was charged with murder and sentenced to be thrown into the sea; in Russia, a bell that peeled too gleefully on the occasion of the assassination of a prince was charged with treason and exiled to Siberia. The protection of society cannot have been the only motive either. Evans tells of the bodies of criminals, already dead, being brought to trial. Pope Stephen VI, on his accession in 896, accused his predecessor, Formosus, of sacrilegiously bringing the papal office into disrepute. The body of the dead pope was exhumed, dressed in the pontifical robes and set up on a throne in St. Peter’s, where a deacon was appointed to defend him. When the verdict of guilty was pronounced, the executioner thrust Formosus from the throne, stripped him of his robes, cut off the three benedictory fingers of his right hand and threw his body “as a pestilential thing” into the Tiber. Taken together, Evans’ cases suggest that again and again, the true purpose of the trials was psychological. People were living at times of deep uncertainty. Both the Greeks and medieval Europeans had in common a deep fear of lawlessness: not so much fear of laws being contravened, as the much worse fear that the world they lived in might not be a lawful place at all. A statue fell on a man out of the blue, a pig killed a baby while its mother was at mass, swarms of locusts appeared from nowhere and devastated the crops, the Holy See was becoming riddled with corruption. At first sight such misfortunes can have appeared to have no rhyme or reason to them. To an extent that we today cannot find easy to conceive, these people of the pre-scientific era lived every day at the edge of explanatory darkness. No wonder if, like Einstein in the twentieth century, they were terrified of the real possibility that “God was playing dice with the universe”. The same anxiety has indeed continued to pervade more modern minds. Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, having declared that “Everything is permitted”, concluded that were his thesis to be generally acknowledged “every living force on which all life depends would dry up at once”. Alexander Pope claimed that “order is heaven’s first law”. And Yeats drew a grim picture of a lawless world:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
Yet the natural universe, lawful as it may in fact have always been, was never in all respects self-evidently lawful. And people’s need to believe that it was so, their faith in determinism, that everything was not permitted, that the centre did hold, had to be continually confirmed by the success of their attempts at explanation. So the law courts, on behalf of society, took matters into their own hands. Just as today, when things are unexplained, we expect the institutions of science to put the facts on trial, one can see the whole purpose of the legal actions as being to establish cognitive control. In other words, the job of the courts was to domesticate chaos, to impose order on a world of accidents — and specifically to make sense of certain seemingly inexplicable events by redefining them as crimes. I read some years ago another report in a London newspaper:
A jilted woman who attempted suicide by leaping from a 12th floor window but landed on and killed a street salesman has been charged with manslaughter. Prosecutors in Taipei, Taiwan said 21-year-old Ho Yu-Mei was responsible for the death of the food salesman because she failed to make sure that there was no one below when she jumped. Ho had argued that she thought the man would have moved away by the time she hit the ground. She also said she had threatened earlier to sue the salesman because “he interfered” with her freedom to take her own life. If convicted, Ho could be imprisoned for two years.
Who says that the medieval obsession with responsibility has gone away? But it was with dogs as criminals I began, and with dogs as criminals I’ll end. A story in The Times some years ago told how a dead dog had been thrown by an unknown hand from the roof of a sky-scraper in Johannesburg, had landed on a man and flattened him — the said man having in consequence departed this life. The headline read — oh, how un-newsworthy! — DOG KILLS MAN. I wonder what Chassenée or E.P.Evans would have made of that.

Nicholas Humphrey is a theoretical psychologist, based in Cambridge, who is known for his work on the evolution of human intelligence and consciousness. His interests are wide ranging. He studied mountain gorillas with Dian Fossey in Rwanda, he was the first to demonstrate the existence of “blindsight” after brain damage in monkeys, he proposed the celebrated theory of the “social function of intellect, and he is the only scientist ever to edit the literary journal Granta. His many books include Consciousness Regained, A History of the Mind, Leaps of Faith, The Mind Made Flesh and most recently Soul Dust. He has been the recipient of several honours, including the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize, the Pufendorf medal and the British Psychological Society’s book award. *(Article adapted from several sources, by permission)

Links to works

  • The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals by E.P.Evans (1906)
  • The Trials of Animals and Insects by Hampton Carlson, article in American Philosophical Transactions (1917)