- THE WITHAM FIRES AND THE 1820S
- THE LEGAL FRAMEWORK AND THE WITHAM FIRES
- THE SOCIAL BACKGROUND
2. THE LEGAL FRAMEWORK AND THE WITHAM FIRES64
The last section described the progress of the Witham arson suspects towards their fate. Now the significance of this progress will be elaborated in relation to the legal framework in which it took place. It will be seen that the law was not a detached entity, because its use depended on the requirements of the people involved in it. Furthermore, it was constantly developing in response to those requirements. For guidance, the procedures involved have been illustrated in diagrammatic form.
The 1820s may be seen as a transitional period in the development of attitudes to the criminal law. Historians dealing with the time before the 19th century tend to stress that much so-called 'discretion' was extended to suspects.65 The operation of the law was largely in the hands of private individuals, who used it as a tool of social control. Potential maximum punishments were very severe, but frequently they were not adhered to in practice, and served mainly as a threat. In contrast, historians who write about the later 19th century stress the development of a new approach.66 It became the ideal that as many suspects as possible should be caught and punished, in a systematic way. To make this more feasible, the law was amended so as to reduce potential penalties to a level which was likely to be used in practice. In particular there was a reduction in the number of offences for which the death sentence could be inflicted. In an attempt to achieve the new aims, public intervention was increased. Thus during the 1820s, some tension and confusion can be expected between the use of discretion and the hope of certainty, and between private and public participation in the law.
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