Thoughts on the History of Crime, the Courts and Capital Punishment — Peter Stubbs — 16th October 2017.

Peter attemp­ted to sum­mar­ise 900 years of legal his­tory in just over an hour , cov­er­ing the quirks and wisdom of English law. –no mean chal­lenge  .  Today, we have trial by jury , no death sen­tence and our jails are full includ­ing over 300 inmates on life sen­tences alone.  No longer are  the guilty flogged, hung, immersed in boil­ing oil or burnt at the stake.  Clearly, justice and the pen­al­ties for crime have moved on a great deal since the medi­eval ages although many offences are very sim­ilar.

Before Trial by Jury, we had the pleas­ant­ries of Trial by Water, Trial by Fire and Trial by Battle.  

Trial by Water would see the accused  immersed in a pond if they sur­vived they were guilty, if they didn’t they were not guilty !!!    Trial by Fire con­sisted of put­ting a piece of red hot iron into the clench fist of the accused , whilst Trial by Battle was settled in a 60 foot square where the accuser and the accused would fight to the last man stand­ing to settle the ver­dict. All very prim­it­ive stuff.  Trial by Battle is hardly a modern way of set­tling legal mat­ters but this didn’t stop an aggrieved motor­ist who had received a fixed pen­alty notice from asking the DVLA for the name of their cham­pion to resolve the dis­pute.  Needless to say the DVLA did not respond and the motor­ist was still fined.

Up to, and includ­ing the 12th cen­tury, the power­ful clergy were involved in admin­is­ter­ing the law, but they were often cor­rupt and in 1215 they were for­bid­den from involve­ment in legal mat­ters.   The concept of Trial by Jury was estab­lished in the 14th cen­tury and is now enshrined in our laws.  Peter emphas­ised the point that once a jury has given its ver­dict this must not be changed.  He went on to illus­trate this point by giving us examples of some high pro­file cases where the juries decisions were unex­pec­ted. In 1380 a law was passed making it illegal to con­tact jurors during the trial.  Trial by Jury may have its crit­ics but is largely favoured by ex- jury mem­bers as the  best way of admin­is­ter­ing justice.

The death pen­alty has caused a great deal of dis­cus­sion and con­tro­versy with many in favour and many against , quot­ing mis­car­riages of justice.  In the 50’s and 60’s moves were made towards abol­ish­ing the death pen­alty.  In 1957, the Homicide Act was passed which removed the death sen­tence for domestic murders leav­ing the sen­tence for the murder of police­men . In 1969, the death sen­tence was abol­ished for all murders.

Peter gave us a most inter­est­ing and pol­ished present­a­tion as he raced through 900 years of legal his­tory, prompt­ing a whole host of ques­tions from a very attent­ive audi­ence.