In Anglo‐Saxon and Norman England, there was no distinction between criminal and civil law. Violence, or the causing of damage or harm to another's person or property, was subject to savage penalties if the offender was caught red‐handed, but other cases, including homicide, were dealt with by a system of compensation whereby, according to a tariff, wrongs were recompensed by money payments.
Certain offences which were especially serious were the ‘pleas of the crown’, declared by the Anglo‐Saxon kings to affect the king's interests especially, such as a breach of the king's peace. The Normans adopted these notions and extended the pleas of the crown, as well as introducing the concept of felony. These pleas came to be dealt with by the king's own justice—i.e. by the king or his justices.
In the Assizes of Clarendon and Northampton (1166 and 1176), Henry II introduced a system under which twelve men of each hundred were to present to the justices of the curia regis those suspected of serious crime. Some see this as the beginning of a true ‘criminal law’, since it acknowledged that it is the role of government in the person of the king to ensure that crime is dealt with. Those presented might then be put to the ordeal to ascertain their guilt or innocence. When the clergy were forbidden to participate in ordeals by the Lateran Council of the church in 1215, the justices turned to the verdict of a jury to decide.
Lesser offences were presented to the sheriff at the periodic session of the hundred court (held four times a year), which was known as the ‘sheriff's tourn’. Where the lord of the manor held a court leet, the jurisdiction of the hundred was exercised in that court, and the fines collected were payable to the lord. Later, after the introduction of the justices of the peace, lesser offences were tried by the JPs in petty sessions or quarter sessions.
The 18th and 19th cents. saw the introduction of large numbers of capital offences. The so‐called ‘bloody code’ imposed savage penalties for many offences and, even when transportation was introduced as an alternative to the death penalty, punishments remained severe. The severity of the penal system was to some extent modified by the use of fictions, especially the undervaluing of goods stolen at less than a pound; by the use of benefit of clergy to enable a defendant who had been found guilty to evade the death penalty; by the reluctance of juries to convict; and by the very widespread use of the power of pardon. Gradually, under the influence of reformers such as Bentham, Romilly, Mackintosh, and Peel, the ferocity of the penal code was mitigated.
This system of criminal justice remained until the 19th cent. and was little changed until the 1971 Courts Act, which abolished assizes and quarter sessions. Serious criminal cases are now tried in the crown court with a jury. Less serious cases are dealt with summarily by magistrates sitting without a jury, or by a stipendiary magistrate.