NO Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.
The notions of (a) judgment by peers (that is,"equals") and (b) that justice is not for sale, have survived through the centuries and have had huge significance for legal process in much of the world.
During legal history, older forms of criminal trial (e.g. trial by ordeal), came to be replaced by the system of jury trial as we now know it. The jury is a common law development. (Here is a summary of the history of the jury system). In the Crown Court of England and Wales, every working day, juries will be found deciding the most serious criminal cases. The judge directs the jury as to the law. The jury is the constitutional decision-maker and the jury decides the facts and the question of guilt. Sentencing of those convicted is for the judge and it must be exercised within the sentencing framework set out in legislation and decisions of the Court of Appeal.
In 2014, the athlete Oscar Pistorius went on trial in South Africa for the murder of Reeva Steenkamp. The trial was by judge alone: Judge Masipa. In an article for The Justice Gap, Felicity Gerry QC considered the case - Oscar Pistorius verdicts - 'was it a miscarriage of justice?' South Africa abandoned jury trial some years ago. Gerry observes:
"The jury system is a much better option than a single judge. Provided cases are properly presented, it avoids individual attacks on judges and keeps the community in the system. The debate between 12 people in a jury room gives a far more satisfying verdict than a legal judgement which has to be delivered like a complex exam paper."
Attempts to whittle down the jury system are sometimes based on cost with the result that trial becomes a summary trial before a bench of magistrates or even a single District Judge (Magistrates' Courts). Another reason for the legislature requiring trial by judge alone has been risk of jury intimidation - see Criminal Justice Act 2003 Part 7.
Explaining our law and legal system - No.4 - Juries - June 2011. (Note: the article may require some updating).
Magna Cartas united at British Library to celebrate 800th anniversary