Constitutional amateurs refute the experts
We have been following the quarrel about constitutional experts. This one began because very few trained lawyers have appeared willing to discuss or defend the British Constitution from attacks by Parliament and the European Union. As a result, amateurs have rushed in where solicitors fear to tread.
The experts sniff that amateurs cannot possibly know enough about the law, but historically this is not true as John Lilburne, William Penn, jury foreman Edward Bushell, John Locke and Granville Sharp, among many others, made brilliantly clear.
Modern amateurs will like Sharp. He taught himself law, discovered that constitutional principles had been forgotten by the authorities and scoured the legal precedents to make his landmark case.
In 1765, Granville Sharp was just 30 when a young African slave, Jonathan Strong, was pistol-whipped almost to death by his owner, David Lisle. Jonathan was brought to Sharp's brother, a surgeon, who saved him.
Granville "took up Strong's case, secured his release from prison when Lisle obtained his arrest as an escaped slave, and fought off a legal challenge which accused him of violating the owner's property rights. Thereafter Sharp, with characteristic devotion to research, applied himself to a detailed study of the legal status of slaves in Britain, as distinct from the colonies, and of the laws of civil liberty in Britain itself" (Oxford DNB).
Slavery had been outlawed in England in 1102, but slave owners claimed that this covered only Brits, not slaves brought to England. After assiduous research, Granville discovered the common law precedents that contradicted this view: Cartwright (1569) which explicitly stated that slavery was outlawed in England; Shanley v Hervey (1762) when the court ruled, "As soon as a man puts foot on English ground, he is free: a Negro may maintain an action against his master for ill usage, and may have a Habeas Corpus, if restrained of his liberty"; and Smith v Brown and Cooper (1765), when Chief Justice Holt ruled, "As soon as a negro comes into England, he becomes free: one may be a villein in England, but not a slave."
Since these rulings were being ignored, Sharp published an analysis in 1769, and in 1772 brought a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of James Somerset, an escaped slave who had been recaptured and was lying in chains on a ship bound for Jamaica. The suit to free him was heard before William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield, Chief Justice of the King's Bench. Lord Mansfield was the judge who established the fundamental principles of British mercantile law. He considered slavery a legal fact and did not welcome the suit.
Though not a member of the bar, Granville developed the legal strategy to free Somerset. The representing barristers made Granville's precedent-based common law arguments, and Judge Mansfield made a U-turn.
He ruled that slavery was not supported by law and that any slave setting foot in England immediately became free.
On our part, we salute the amateurs, including Elisabeth Beckett (recently deceased), John Bingley, Albert Burgess, John Gouriet, John Harris, Roger Hayes, John Wrake. . .
Their cause is the cause of freedom.