Australias modern justice system

Australia’s modern justice system and its application of the law has been the result of evolutionary foundations laid by justice and law in Medieval England. From the variations in the types of crimes committed and their prevention to the way criminals are and were apprehended, trialed and consequently punished, years of evidence proves that many aspects of the justice system have evolved-yet some have remained the same.

Justice has evolved as medieval communities and society changed from strong belief in feudalistic life to the growth of towns and cities in the 1600-1900’s, as well as a response to the evolution of beliefs based on religion to a more scientific approach based on evidence.

Crime and Crime Prevention:

The crimes committed today are vastly different to those committed back in Medieval England (1100’s) as well as the techniques used by law enforcers to prevent them. Common crimes committed in the 1100’s were heresy, theft, witchcraft, vagrancy, murder and assault and embezzlement. Many of these crimes were mainly applicable for serfs (none for the king) and were also based on superstitions created by the church to maintain control of society- crimes such as witchcraft and heresy.

Some of these crimes are no longer present today in our community as society is much more liberal and laws are no longer based around superstitions. Instead, these crimes were replaced after the scientific revolution in the 1800’s by more technology related crimes that did not exist earlier due to the lack of technology. These crimes range from traffic crimes like drink driving and speeding, along with a growing amount of Internet piracy, financial fraud, smuggling and possession of illegal firearms. Racism and discrimination have slowly crept into the law after medieval discrimination “ witchcraft” was abolished late into the 1400’s.

The system of crime prevention has also evolved greatly. During the medieval times, techniques such as public humiliation and tithing were used to prevent people from committing crimes. The church would humiliate criminals in public by slaughtering or killing them in front of everyone so that villagers would be put off, having the thought of torture in the back of their mind.

The tithing was a system established in Anglo-Saxon times where everyone was placed in a group of ten. In this group, everyone was responsible for everyone else’s actions. Thus if one member of the tithing broke the law, the others had the responsibility for taking him to court otherwise they were punished as well. All these techniques were linked to the fear- fueled by the church- of landing up in hell if you committed a crime.

Nowadays, crime is prevented through a completely different method based around a much more conclusive approach. Booze buses are used to prevent drink driving, as many don’t risk being caught by one of the numerous buses that can prove you guilty immediately. Also agencies like the ASIO and FBI use intelligence sources to prevent larger crimes- intercepting the criminals before the crime is committed. (Culpin, 2012)

Establishing Guilt/Innocence:

Methods to establish guilt and innocence have evolved from medieval times. Even the concept of innocent until guilty in our modern justice system has only been around for a while. In the middle ages, it was guilty until you could prove yourself innocent through either trial by ordeal or combat. The feudal system played a major role in what method a person could use to prove their innocence as trial by combat was only for nobles or knights (vassals). Trial by combat would include the guilty noble fighting another noble/knight whom he said was guilty-the winner of the fight would be “ innocent”.

Trial by ordeal reached its peak between the 9th and 13th centuries and was left for the serfs (the king was always innocent) to prove their innocence. These trials included trial by boiling water which required the serf to place his hand in boiling water and pull out a piece of hot iron. Guilt would be established if the wound had not healed in three days- if it healed then innocent. Another trial was trial by cold water, which saw the subject thrown into a “ holy” river, and if they drowned, they were innocent otherwise guilt as God had supposedly rejected them. The church also used torture and imprisonment to obtain confessions from people regardless of whether they were guilty. (Nash, 2013)

After trial by ordeals were abolished after Pope Innocent III’s decree and the fall of feudalism after the signing of the Magna Carta by King John, similar methods of determining guilt and innocence as known to us today have been used. Now the modern justice system trials everyone before determining their guilt once if there is sufficient evidence.

Forms of Punishment:

Punishment in Medieval England was vastly different to punishment today. Before 1166, laws were based around the Doom Book created by King Alfred, outlining Christian values and punishments were given to crimes against these laws. These crimes ranged from torture, humiliation and being thrown in the stocks to death penalties such as hanging, quartering and being burned on the stake depending on which manor you were in. These punishments weighed accordingly to where you stood in society as serfs could be hanged for the slightest of crimes where as the king was allowed to do anything. However this all changed in 1166 when King Henry II founded a group of travelling judges who would travel the country, recording down all the crimes committed in every manor.

Then they would get together and decide on a common punishment for each crime and everyone in the country who had committed that crime would be punished the same way as someone else in a different manor. This was called common law and is the basic for today’s justice system and constitution. The Magna Carta, signed by King John in the 1200’s, was the first time the king was also bound to the common law. Since then modern punishment such as fines, demerits, criminal records and a jail sentence have applied to everyone, everywhere in the country. Punishments have changed and sobered as now criminals are given a second chance in society. (Trueman, 2004)

Apprehending Criminals:

Apprehending criminals today is very similar to how criminals were apprehended in the middle ages. Now, the nationwide police force is in charge to apprehend criminals. However this hasn’t always been the case. Even up until 1900-when there were only 60, 000 policemen in Britain (now over 135, 000)-the community also used methods to catch criminals themselves. The Hue and Cry, which originated from Anglo-Saxon times, was used before and after the establishment of common law to catch a criminal with the help of the whole community.

It is said that when a bystander witnessed a crime, he would sound a “ Hue and Cry” meaning he would shout out for others to come. Everyone would then try and track down the criminal so that he could be punished. This was the main method of apprehending criminals for most part of the Middle Ages. Later on during the Norman era as towns grew, a sheriff was appointed yearly in each manor to aid with catching criminals. Local people would go to him to help them catch a thief or stop a crime happening.

Evidence was not used to apprehend criminals during the medieval times. Only later in 1901 was the use of fingerprint scanners used but before that criminals would be caught based on the bystanders word. (Leeson, 2010)


It is quite clear that the roots and foundations of our legal justice system originated from Medieval Europe. Crimes have evolved and changed slightly as lifestyles have progressed and new methods-based around those in the 1100’s-have been brought in to prevent crime more effectively-methods not possible 600 years ago when technology wasn’t around. Ways of establishing guilt have changed but the concept of trial has been around since the Middle Ages. Punishment for crimes has been around for centuries with variations taking places to adapt with new crimes. Before the first use of the modern prison in the 16th century, stocks held criminals in the same manner as prisons do today. The justice system in the middle ages was the basis for the 21st century justice system and law.


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