An important view on the ‘cab-rank’ rule.

The Bishop of London was complaining that prisoners were entitled to counsel which “was a principle of exceedingly questionable propriety”

Lord Brougham replied that he,

was at some loss to understand the grounds upon which the petitioners rested their prayer.

The privilege of the exercise of which they complained was not that of the counsel, but of the prisoner; it was a privilege upon which the elucidation of truth, the prevention of injustice depended, and the life, liberties, and property of the subject were not worth an hour’s purchase if the freest scope, he would say more, the most unrestrained license was not given to the bar.

Whether in a case which was right or wrong this was the rule, the sacred rule of the profession, and it was one upon which the safety of the administration of justice depended.

With regard to the judgment of counsel, as to the propriety or impropriety of taking any case in hand, how, he would ask, could any man know a case to be a bad one before it was tried?

Was he to enter into an investigation of it, sitting in his chambers, upon an ex-parte statement?

Supposing he did so, and should then refuse to enter upon the defence, what would be the consequence?

The door would be opened to the possibility of a refusal being given to be counsel in a case, and if a man had a right to refuse to act in one case, the same right might be exercised in others.

If once a barrister were to be allowed to refuse a brief, and to say he would not defend a man because he was in the wrong, many would be found who would refuse to defend men, not on account of the case, but because they were weak men, under the pressure of unpopularity, against whom power had set its mark, because they were the victims of oppression, or were about to be made so, or because it would not be convenient for parties at all times to beard power on behalf of individuals, in the situation of prisoners.

Lord Brougham later became Lord Chancellor.

This reading is of historic interest. The BSB Code of Conduct (contained in the BSB Handbook) now governs the ethical behaviour of barristers.

Formatted for ease of reading.