Skip to main content

Meeting focuses on English legal history

November 14, 2007

Nearly 300 scholars and students of legal history from around the world gathered Oct. 25-27 at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and the Tempe Mission Palms Hotel for the 2007 conference of the American Society for Legal History.

The centerpiece of the meeting, which featured the presentation of more 100 papers and three dozen panels, was a plenary session with Paul Brand, the world’s most prominent English legal historian of the 13th and 14th centuries. Brand is a senior research fellow and academic secretary at All Souls College at the University of Oxford.

“He’s also a good friend of the law school,” said professor Jonathan Rose, who headed a committee that planned and executed the successful event. “I’ve rarely met a more collegial and generous person to scholars of all kinds.”
Brand’s paper, “Thirteenth century English Royal Justices: What We Know and Do Not Know About What They Did,” was the result of decades of painstaking study, transcription and translation of hundreds of manuscripts of English law reports and books.

From his research, Brand painted a picture of the early history of the legal profession in England, one that can’t be seen from official court records, because they omitted most of justice’s functions, actions and behavior from the bench.

The royal courts of the 13th century were radically different from previous courts in that they had nationwide jurisdiction, rather than communal authority, and these king-appointed justices met every day, except Sunday, for weeks at a time, rather than a day or less every two to four weeks. However, Brand said, the law reports produce skepticism about whether the justices actually were in court, despite the official records saying they were.

The new courts also were the first to keep complete written records of their cases and to require defendants to be served by the local sheriff. The justices heard civil and criminal cases.

The justices often took an active role during trials to charging the juries or interrogating them after they gave their verdicts.