Law Reports

Law Reports Report (150 points)

One of the main ways that legal knowledge circulated in the 19th century was through regularly published volumes of “Law Reports.” These reports described what was said during a court proceeding, and they indicated the outcome and the reasons for the outcome.

As you notice when you read these, they are as invested in story-telling and narration as they are in legal motions, and they are deeply interested in what sorts of questions one can ask and what sorts of evidence one can consider. In other words, they’re interested in some of the same questions that fascinate our novelists and our novels.

For some useful historical background on the law reports, read this section, “Reports of Cases,” from J.H. Baker’s An Introduction to English Legal History, fourth edition (Oxford UP, 2005). For a fantastic example of how to read these documents closely for their use of literary devices and their relationship with story-telling, read the chapter “Law Reports: Form and Function” from Ayelet Ben-Yishai’s Common Precedents: The Presentness of the Past in Victorian Law and Fiction (Oxford UP, 2013), pages 41-49.

For this assignment:

  1. Pick one of the cases below, or another one you come across in 19th-century law reports that strikes you as interesting. I have selected fairly brief ones that range in length from 2 pages to about 16 pages.
  2. Read through the report carefully, but don’t worry too much about stumbling over Latin legal phrases, etc. Read for the big picture: What sort of story is the report telling? How does it tell this story? Does it merely report events? Does it describe those events in some detail? Does it deploy any interesting stylistic devices, such as metaphors, repetition, etc.?
  3. Write a few informal paragraphs reflecting on the report you read. Give a brief synopsis of the case or problem at hand (e.g., who’s accused of doing what to whom), tell us what is ultimately decided, and talk a little bit about what evidence appeared to matter, what sorts of questions arose, and how the report was written (the stylistic issues I mentioned above).
  4. Share this file with me, in a google doc (go to and log in with your university email address).

NB: Page numbers provided here correspond to the printed edition, but the links should take to you the appropriate page in the ereader, and this may be different from the printed edition’s pagination.

Reeve v. Kent (1841)

[Last will and testament made and then amended…which version counts? Who gets the money?]

Pages 213-16

Legge v. Edmonds (1855)

[“adulterine bastardy” and the “incapacity of the husband”]

Pages 125-41

Hawker v. Hallewell (1856)

[gambling debt and dishonesty]

Pages 558-63

Blamires v. The Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company (1873)

[When railroad cars separate from the train and the passengers are sort of left there…who’s to blame?]

Vol. 42, Trinity Term, pages 182-84 (772/994 in ereader)

In re Lisbon Steam Tramways Company (1876)

[speculation, bankruptcy, and whether a super-important businessman who’s like really busy should have to give testimony]

Pages 575-85

 Scott, falsely called Sebright v. Sebright (1886)

[“nullity of marriage,” intimidation, domestic violence]

Pages 21-31

In re Whittaker. Whittaker v. Whittaker (1886)

[Did a farmer’s husband borrow money from her when they married? Should she be compensated on his death?]

Pages 657-666

Hilton v. Tucker (1887)

[sold items left in locked room for pick-up by purchaser; confusion and hilarity ensue…sort of]

Pages 669-677


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Associate Professor of Literature :: Yale-NUS College

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