Criminal trial procedure in eighteenth-century England: the impact of lawyers

Criminal trial procedure in eighteenth-century England: the impact of lawyers

Lemmings, David

The Journal of Legal History, 2005; 26 (1):73-82.    


John Langbein’s work on the English criminal trial, culminating in The Origins of Adversary Criminal Trial, has generally transformed our understanding of how the modern Anglo-American ‘lawyerised’ procedure came about. But for a social historian like me, who is interested in the rise and rise of the lawyers and other quasi-ministerial professionals from the sixteenth century, his work also forms a crucial chapter in the long story of professionalization in law and governance, and the effective marginalization of lay people.

Langbein’s extensive studies of Old Bailey trials have helped to identify the eighteenth century as a watershed in this story. The origins of the lawyerised trial lay in the growth of semi-professional policing and official prosecution in Georgian London, then subject to unprecedented public concerns about crime. Under Queen Anne and the first two Georges the central government took an unprecedented interest in the prosecution of notorious crimes. As their business, and their exposure to crime increased from the end of the seventeenth century, several of the departments of state – the Treasury, the Mint, the Post Office and the Bank of England – appointed an officer who took responsibility for the investigation and prosecution of criminal offences, and increasingly they tended to fee counsel too.

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