Criminal Justice under Henry II in United Kingdom
Assizes of Clarendon and Northampton
By his Assizes of Clarendon and Northampton, Henry II reserved important crimes for the exclusive consideration of his own judges either on circuit or at his court; and he demanded entry for these judges into all franchises for that purpose.
In this part of his policy, the King was completely successful; heinous crimes were, in the beginning of the thirteenth century, admitted on all hands to be “pleas of the Crown” (that is, cases reserved exclusively for royal jurisdiction); and Magna Carta made no attempt to reverse this part of the Crown’s policy: all that was attempted in 1215 was to obtain a promise that these functions, now surrendered to the Crown forever, should be discharged by the Crown’s officials in a proper manner.
Private “appeal” substituted Communal Accusation
Henry’s usual good sense, in this matter stimulated by some notable miscarriages of justice, led him to question the equity of the procedure usually adopted in criminal pleas: for private “appeal” (or accusation by the injured party or his nearest surviving relative), he substituted, whenever possible, communal accusation; that is, the duty of indicting suspected criminals before the King’s Justices was no longer left to private initiative, but was laid on a body of neighbours—the predecessors of the Grand Jury of later days. Appeals were discouraged and rules laid down restricting the right of accusation.
Trial by Combat
A necessary complement was the discouragement of “trial by combat.” An ingenious device was invented and extended to an increasing number of cases; an accused individual might apply for a writ known as de odio et atia, and evade the duellum by a reference to what was practically a jury of neighbours.
Source: Part II. Magna Carta: A Commentary on the Great Charter of King John, with an Historical Introduction, by William Sharp McKechnie (Glasgow: Maclehose, 1914).
History of Magna Carta in the English Encyclopedia
English Court System in the Legal Encyclopedia
Civil Justice under Henry II
Royal Justice in the Feudal Period
Ashford v Thornton