Victorian Juries: Roland Quinault Looks at How the Victorians Saw the Old English System of Trial by Jury as a Defining Feature of British Good Government and Fair Play and as an Example to Other Nations. Admiration for the System at Home and Abroad, Though, Contrasted with the Practical Realities Faced by 19th-Century Juries

By Quinault, Roland | History Today, May 2009 | Go to article overview

Victorian Juries: Roland Quinault Looks at How the Victorians Saw the Old English System of Trial by Jury as a Defining Feature of British Good Government and Fair Play and as an Example to Other Nations. Admiration for the System at Home and Abroad, Though, Contrasted with the Practical Realities Faced by 19th-Century Juries


Quinault, Roland, History Today


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The Victorians were inordinately proud of the English common law system of trial by jury. Before the passage of the 1832 Reform Act progressives in England were ashamed of the antiquated state of parliamentary representation but they revered the even more archaic system of trial by jury. Writing in 1823 Lord John Russell, the Whig reformer who later became prime minister, believed that the jury system was more effective than the electoral system of the day in convincing the masses that they had a share in the government of the country and an attachment to its laws. The lawyer and lord chancellor Henry Brougham, another leading Whig reformer, claimed that the object of the English constitution was to get 'twelve good men into a [jury] box'. There was a widespread belief--across party and class divide--that trial by jury had been instrumental, since its inception in the early medieval era, in ensuring justice and civil liberties in England. Juries had provided a measure of protection against the arbitrary use of the royal prerogative by the Stuarts in the 17th century and in 1794 a jury had acquitted the radical leaders of the London Corresponding Society when they were accused of high treason.

Trial by jury was also esteemed because it was regarded as distinctly English both in character and origin. In the early Victorian period it was widely believed that trial by jury had originated with the Anglo-Saxons and more particularly with that paladin of national identity Alfred the Great. Among the entrants for the 1843 competition to decorate the new Houses of Parliament was a cartoon entitled The First Trial by Jury which depicted an open-air court with 12 Saxon jurors. The origin of the jury was a subject of much research by historians including William Stubbs, Edward Freeman and Frederic Maitland. They concluded that it was the Norman and Angevin kings rather than the Saxons who had introduced the jury system but that it had then developed a uniquely English character. The Conservative politician William Forsyth claimed in his History of Trial by Jury (1852) that the long existence of jury trials had influenced the national character by inculcating a love of fair play and an abhorrence of injustice.

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During the 18th and 19th centuries trial by jury was one of England's most important invisible exports, spreading rapidly across the English-speaking world and Europe. As the British Empire grew so did the use of juries for trials involving British or European settlers. In America, after independence, the US Constitution made juries mandatory for criminal trials, although there was some difference of practice in the various states. In Europe, too, the English jury system was widely admired and imitated. After the 1789 revolution trial by jury was established in France for some criminal offences and following the 1848 revolution in that country jury service was extended to all literate males who were not domestic servants. In 1849 the Prussian government acceded to popular pressure and introduced jury trials for criminal, though not political, cases. Other countries that adopted the jury system during this period included Belgium, Greece, Portugal and Piedmont.

Yet despite its high reputation the actual operation of the jury system in England and Wales often left much to be desired. The terms and conditions under which juries were selected and operated were prescribed by the 1825 Jury Act (consolidated and revised in a further Juries Act of 1870). The act of 1825 was the work of Robert Peel while home secretary. As prime minister he would cite it in his 1835 Tamworth Manifesto as proof of his reform credentials. The act transferred the registration of qualified jurors from parish constables to churchwardens and poor law overseers. It also introduced balloting for the selection of jurors, which largely ended allegations of jury-packing in England.

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Victorian Juries: Roland Quinault Looks at How the Victorians Saw the Old English System of Trial by Jury as a Defining Feature of British Good Government and Fair Play and as an Example to Other Nations. Admiration for the System at Home and Abroad, Though, Contrasted with the Practical Realities Faced by 19th-Century Juries
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