Eighteenth Century Jury Qualification

Eligibility for serving on juries was established and revised by a series of statutes. From at least 1414 the minimum threshold for serving was the ownership of freehold property worth 40s per annum. This was the same as the electoral franchise established by law in 1430. Although the electoral qualification was unchanged during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the threshold for jury service was revised on several occasions.4 Under an Act passed in 1664 it was restricted to owners of freehold property worth £20 per year or more.5 The purpose of the Act was to ensure the returning of 'more able and sufficient Jurors' and for the 'reformation of abuses in Sheriffs and other Ministers, who for reward do oftentimes spare the ablest and sufficientest, and return the poorer and simpler freeholders, less able to discern the Causes in question'. The Act was apparently allowed to lapse in 1667, and was revived under new legislation passed in 1692.6

The new Act set the level of qualification for jury service at the ownership of freehold or copyhold land worth £10 per year or more. This broadened the group of those from whom jurors could be drawn, and sought to ensure that trial juries consisted of members of the middling sort, such as farmers, tradesmen, craftsmen and other substantial householders.7 Legislation dating from the reign of Henry VIII set the qualification for inhabitants of incorporated towns at £40 in goods, irrespective of whether or not an individual was a freeholder.8 In 1730 the criteria for serving was expanded by 'An Act for the better Regulation of Juries'.9 This included men aged 21-70 who held land by lease of a minimum value of £20 per annum, provided such lands were held for the absolute term of 500 years or more, or 99 years or other term determinable on one or more lives. The Act also levied a fine of between two and five pounds for non-attendance after having been summoned as a juror, and sought to limit the practice of the same men being called too frequently by prohibiting them from serving more than once every two years.10

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  1. Asa Briggs, England in the Age of Improvement 1783-1867 (Folio Society ed., London, 1997), 93. [back]
  2. 16 & 17 Chas. II, c. 3. The legislation is summarised by Hay, 'Class Composition', 311-313. [back]
  3. 4 & 5 W & M., c. 24, ss. 15, 18. [back]
  4. J.M. Beattie, Crime and the Courts in England 1660-1800 (Oxford, 1986), 378-79. [back]
  5. Hay, 'Class Composition', 312. Richard Burn, The Justice of the Peace, and Parish Officer (10th ed., London, 1766), vol. 2, 465. [back]
  6. 3 Geo. II, cap. 25. [back]
  7. Beattie, Crime and the Courts, 379. [back]