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: Suggested Citation