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Dickens introduces the case in the first chapter:
"Jarndyce v Jarndyce drones on. This scarecrow of a suit has, in course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means. The parties to it understand it least, but it has been observed that no two Chancery lawyers can talk about it for five minutes without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises. Innumerable children have been born into the cause; innumerable old people have died out of it. . . . Fair wards of court have faded into mothers and grandmothers; a long procession of Chancellors has come in and gone out; the legion of bills in the suit have been transformed into mere bills of mortality; there are not three Jarndyces left upon the earth perhaps since old Tom Jarndyce in despair blew his brains out at a coffee-house in Chancery Lane; but Jarndyce v Jarndyce still drags its dreary length before the court, perennially hopeless."
Dickens used his experience as both a law clerk and a litigant in Chancery Court, to write this scathing indictment of the British judicial system, which ultimately led to the judicial reforms of 1870.
Richard Carstone, an heir in the Jarndyce litigation, restlessly wanders from one potential career to another without the aptitude or fortitude for any. He pins his hope for financial affluence upon resolution of the long-standing Jarndyce v. Jarndyce dispute. But as the novel draws to its conclusion, his dreams are dashed upon the hard truth of the English legal system.
Over the years of litigation, lawyer fees have eaten up the entire Jarndyce estate. There is no money left. Devastated, Richard dies.
The lesson of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce continues to ring through the judicial system. 264 state and federal cases have cited the fictional Jarndyce case. Only the most significant of legal precedents have been cited more.
Dickens' excoriation of the English legal system is brought down full force in two biting paragraphs as the novel draws toward its conclusion:
We asked a gentleman by us if he knew what cause was on. He told us Jarndyce v Jarndyce. We asked him if he knew what was doing in it. He said really, no he did not, nobody ever did, but as well as he could make out, it was over. Over for the day? we asked him. No, he said, over for good. Over for good! When we heard this unaccountable answer, we looked at one another quite lost in amazement. Could it be possible that the will had set things right at last and that Richard and Ada were going to be rich? It seemed too good to be true. Alas it was! Our suspense was short, for a break-up soon took place in the crowd, and the people came streaming out looking flushed and hot and bringing a quantity of bad air with them. Still they were all exceedingly amused and were more like people coming out from a farce or a juggler than from a court of justice. We stood aside, watching for any countenance we knew, and presently great bundles of paper began to be carried out--bundles in bags, bundles too large to be got into any bags, immense masses of papers of all shapes and no shapes, which the bearers staggered under, and threw down for the time being, anyhow, on the Hall pavement, while they went back to bring out more. Even these clerks were laughing. We glanced at the papers, and seeing Jarndyce v Jarndyce everywhere, asked an official-looking person who was standing in the midst of them whether the cause was over. Yes, he said, it was all up with it at last, and burst out laughing too.
"Mr. Kenge," said Allan, appearing enlightened all in a moment. "Excuse me, our time presses. Do I understand that the whole estate is found to have been absorbed in costs?" "Hem! I believe so," returned Mr. Kenge. "Mr. Vholes, what do YOU say?" "I believe so," said Mr. Vholes. "And that thus the suit lapses and melts away?" "Probably," returned Mr. Kenge. "Mr. Vholes?" "Probably," said Mr. Vholes.