Posts Tagged ‘Star Chamber’

The Lib-Dem’s Introduction of Secret Courts

July 13, 2013

The political blog, Another Angry Voice, has this piece about legislation by the Lib-Dems introducing secret courts into Britain:

Secret Courts: The Very Illiberal Democrats

On the 4th of March 2013 the majority of Lib Dem MPs sided with the Tory government to shoot down two last minute amendments to the Justice and Security (Secret Courts) Bill.

For those of you that don’t know about what the Tory “Secret Courts” bill entails, here’s a brief description: As it now stands, defendants (or claimants in civil cases) can be excluded from the hearings where their fates are decided; they will not be allowed to know what the case against them is; they will not be allowed to enter the courtroom; they will not be allowed to know or challenge the details of the case; and they will not be allowed representation from their own lawyer, but will instead be represented (in their absence) by a security-cleared “special advocate”.

The full article can be read here:

This is a violation of Magna Carta and a return to regime of the 15th and 16th Star Chamber that was used to degrade, disgrace and punish members of the aristocracy.

The Star Chamber Court

The Court of Star Chamber is the name given to the King’s Council, from the chamber in which it sat. When it sat as a court, it was held in a chamber in Westminster Palace decorated with a blue ceiling with stars. It is not to be confused with the court that enforce laws against the maintenance of private armies by the aristocracy, corrupt juries and rioting, which a sixteenth century clerk described as ‘pro camera stellata’ in the provisions for it in the statute book.

The court of Star Chamber was not an exclusive criminal court. Half of the business it dealt with were civil cases. It could, however, proceed unimpeded by the restrictions on other law courts. For example, it could try cases in secret and without a jury. The cases it tried came from private petitions brought by aggravated suitors. In contrast to its notorious reputation, it only levied moderate fines. Those convicted by the court were only jailed until they paid them. Nevertheless, it was bitterly resented by the aristocracy, who complained:

‘There were very few persons of quality who had not suffered or been perplexed by the weight or fear’ from the censures and judgements’ of the Star Chamber Court. They bitterly resented this attack on their personal honour, and felt it degraded them to the level of the ordinary Englishman. They complained that

‘persons of honour and great quality … were every day cited in the High Commission Court, upon the fame of their incontinence, or other scandal in their lives, and were there prosecuted to their shame and punishment … (which they called an insolent triumph upon their degree and quality, and levelling them with the common people …’.

It was one of the causes of the disaffection with Charles I’s reign that resulted in the outbreak of the British Civil War/ War of the Three Kingdoms. Another cause was the increasing tax burden that fell on the peasantry, urban artisans and the ‘middling sort’, from which the aristocracy were exempt.

Magna Carta

Several of the most celebrated and famous passages in the Magna Carta, wrung out of king John by the barons at Runnymede, are for the effective provision of justice against its abuse by royal power. Chapter 39 expressed the basic foundation of the rule of law:

‘No freeman shall be arrested, or kept in prison or disseised (of his freehold) or outlawed or banished, or in any way brought to ruin – and we will not act against him or send others against bhim -unless by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land’.

Chapter 40 promises that

‘To none will we sell, refuse, or delay right or justice’.

This was in response to the complaint that it cost too much to secure a writ from the king, who in any case accepted gifts and bribes to speed or delay court cases. Chapter 20 also contains the provision that fines will be of a reasonable size, and not be so great as to deprive men of their livelihood.

The Magna Carta has been for centuries the outstanding symbol of English justice, and the baron’s victory over John at Runnymede a shining illustration of the ‘Commune of England’, in which ‘every man has his own opinion’, as one Anglo-Norman baron put it. In actual fact Magna Carta is much less impressive when examined critically. Most of its clauses are to secure the privileges of the aristocracy, rather than the establishment of anything like democracy. When these do occur, they are so vague and interpretation that no two people could necessarily agree on what they actually mean. They contain no penalties, nor means of enforcement. Nevertheless, they were seen at the time and by future monarchs as the foundation of traditional English liberties. It was repeatedly reissued by monarchs such as John’s son, Henry III.

Regardless of whether or not Magna Carta is an effective guarantee of English freedom, it was one of the major foundations of British constitutional government. The legislation introduce by Lib-Dems that allows for secret trials overturns these principles and threatens to return Britain to the days of the Star Chambers. The only difference this time will be that it is the poor, rather than the aristocracy and the wealthy, who are ground under foot.


Sinclair Atkins, England and Wales under the Tudors (Sevenoaks: Hodder and Stoughton 1975).

Frank Barlow, The Feudal Kingdom of England 1042-1216, 4th Edition, (London: Longman 1988)

Brian Manning, ‘The Aristocracy and the Downfall of Charles I’, in W.R. Owens (ed.), Seventeenth Century England: A Changing Culture. Two volumes. Volume 2: Modern Studies (London: Ward Lock Eductation/ The Open University Press 1980) 109-18.