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.

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.

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