The Ideology of Jury Autonomy in the Early Common Law
44 Pages Posted: 14 Nov 2000
This article looks closely at the substantial discretion exercised by the premodern English jury. Through the sixteenth century, jurors enjoyed broad autonomy with respect to fact-finding. For much of the medieval period they came to court already knowledgeable about the facts of a case and rendered their verdicts on that basis. Even after they ceased to be self-informed and had to rely instead on evidence presented in court, jurors continued to exercise their fact-finding authority with substantial independence from judicial control and review. The premodern jury also had significant autonomy regarding what we would call questions of law, an aspect of jury discretion that has received little attention from historians. In this article I look closely at the evidence bearing on both facets of jury autonomy, including trial records, accounts of trial proceedings, and legislation relating to the jury. In addition, I attempt to shed some light on the ideological assumptions that justified the early common law's commitment to jury autonomy, a commitment that is hard to understand in light of the modern rule of law idea.
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