Law and History Review

Forum: From the Twelve Judges to the Court for Crown Cases Reserved

Forgery and the Twelve Judges in Eighteenth-Century England

Randall McGowen c1

In his thoughtful and informative article on the twelve judges and judicial review, James Oldham illuminates an important if little-studied corner of eighteenth and nineteenth-century judicial practice. For centuries judges in criminal (and civil) cases had reserved questions that presented peculiar difficulties related to procedure or the interpretation of statute to the consideration of their colleagues. We seldom glimpse much of the substance or form of these deliberations. They were private and informal discussions, although by the eighteenth century the participants in these meetings observed well-understood conventions. Oldham outlines what these rules and practices involved. Decisions, for instance, did not have to be unanimous. The majority opinion took on the force of precedent, even though the deliberations often survived only in unpublished notes or the memories of the judges. Oldham gives a strong reading to this practice. Judges not only determined which cases would be referred to their colleagues, they exercised considerable discretion in ruling on the objections that had been raised. He views this process as offering another example of the power of the judges to shape the character of legal proceedings in early modern England. They were not only correcting procedural mistakes that arose during a trial; they were actively interpreting statute. In doing so, they demonstrated their decisive role in controlling the operation of criminal justice over the long eighteenth century.

(Online publication February 14 2011)



Randall McGowen is a professor of history at the University of Oregon <>. He thanks Donna Andrew, John Beattie, Simon Devereaux, Peter King, Norma Landau, and Michael Lobban for their comments on this article. He acknowledges a special debt to James Oldham for his enthusiasm for the project of making sense of the activities of the twelve judges. This article was written with support from a University of Oregon summer fellowship.