The ‘touting nuisance’ in late Victorian Dalston

Anyone who sits in casualty waiting to be seen or flicks the channels on daytime television will have come across the adverts for ‘compensation lawyers’. In the US they are sometimes described as ‘ambulance chasers’ and here characterized by their promise of ‘no win, no fee’. They seem a very modern phenomenon, the by-product of an age where no one seems to take responsibility for their own actions and where every ‘accident’ appears to be an opportunity for financial gain.

A close friend of mine recently went to court to challenge the claim of a person who said that he had caused her severe whip lash when their cars had collided. She was motivated by the hope of a fat compensation payout by his insurance company. The company were skeptical and fought the action; she lost and no win no fee ended costing her quite a considerable sum in courts costs. So, be warned, it’s not as straightforward as one might think.

Nor is it a new thing. In the 1700s courts complained about the actions of ‘trading justices’, magistrates who employed men to stand outside their offices and tout for business on the London streets. They looked for those that had been assaulted, or robbed, or who had some other need to go to law, for whom their masters could act and charge a fee. The activity of the ‘trading justices’ led to the passing of the Middlesex Justices Act in 1792 which created the Police Offices of the Metropolis which are the subject of this blog.

But while the new offices might have done much to make the law more accessible to many and to have cleaned up some of the venal practices of the worst offenders it did not get rid of the problem altogether. As the legal profession established itself in the late 1700s and throughout the nineteenth century competition for clients remained key.

In 1888 (the year of the Whitechapel murders) one solicitor complained to the sitting magistrate at Dalston police court that ‘the practice of “touting”…was still being largely carried on’. He told Mr Bros that each day a young man was seen walking up and down the queue of persons waiting to enter the court, ‘asking people their business’. The lawyer complained that this was unfair on ‘other solicitors’. Arguably while this behaviour isn’t the same as ‘ambulance chasing’ it is indicative of a legal profession which is motivated by the desire to make money by winning (some might say ‘stealing’) clients from other lawyers. The magistrate was suitably annoyed, and said he would deal with the ‘touting nuisance’.

[From Daily News, Friday, July 6, 1888]

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