The English Fire Courts and the American Right to Civil Jury Trial

65 Pages Posted: 11 Feb 2016 Last revised: 12 Feb 2016

Date Written: February 11, 2016


This Article uncovers the history of a long-forgotten English court system, the “fire courts,” which Parliament established to resolve dispute between landlords and tenants in urban areas destroyed in catastrophic fires. One of the fire courts’ remarkable features was the delegation of authority to judges to adjudicate disputes without juries. Because the Seventh Amendment’s right to a federal civil jury trial depends in part on the historical practice of English courts in 1791, this delegation bears directly on the present power of Congress to abrogate the use of juries in federal civil litigation.

Parliament enacted fire-courts legislation on eight occasions between the mid-seventeenth century and the nineteenth century. The Article particularly emphasizes the first and largest of these courts, established after the Great Fire of London in 1666. Archival research into 1,585 cases resolved by the London Fire Court reveals that the Court never employed juries to resolve contested factual matters. The Article argues that the history of these courts provides a limited but clear power for Congress to strike civil juries in federal court.

Keywords: Seventh Amendment, legal history, jury trial, constitutional interpretation, originalism

JEL Classification: K40, K41, K49

Suggested Citation

Tidmarsh, Jay, The English Fire Courts and the American Right to Civil Jury Trial (February 11, 2016). University of Chicago Law Review, Vol. 83, No. 4, Available at SSRN:

Jay Tidmarsh (Contact Author)

Notre Dame Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 780
Notre Dame, IN 46556-0399
United States
574-631-6985 (Phone)
574-631-4197 (Fax)

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