Peculiar Mercy. "A History of Criminal Law in New South Wales: The Colonial Period 1788-1900" by G. D. Woods. [review]
The book is built around the themes of savagery within the justice system; the entrenchment of the rule of law and the development of legal principle; and the discretionary application of clemency within the criminal law. Early on in the piece, Wood warns the reader that he will focus on the law relating to murder, rape, assault and theft, and essential doctrines and procedures relating to criminal trials. Dry as the prospect of reading a further 400 pages appears to be at that point, it is a misleading impression. Wood brings this apparently dense and unpromising topic to life by employing a series of vignettes, anecdotes and case studies that reveal the peculiarities, not only of the law itself, but of colonial judges, lawyers, politicians, administrators and criminals in all their hideousness and glory; and he does so with both gravitas and humour. Woods’s pioneering work (as far as I can ascertain, the first comprehensive history of this country’s criminal law in the colonial period) is not only an impressive piece of scholarship and a fascinating expedition into our past, but a service in placing our current controversies in their historical contexts.