A grand jury is a type of jury that determines whether a criminal indictment will be issued. Currently, only the United States retains grand juries, although some other common law jurisdictions formerly employed them, and most other jurisdictions employ some other type of preliminary hearing. In Ireland, they also functioned as local government authorities.
A grand jury is so named because it has a greater number of jurors than a trial jury (also known as a petit jury, from the French for small).
In Australia, the State of Victoria maintained, until 2009, provisions for a grand jury in the Crimes Act 1958 under section 354 Indictments, which had been used on rare occasions by individuals to bring other persons to court seeking them to be committed for trial on indictable offenses.
Grand juries were once common across Canada and old courthouses with the two jury boxes necessary to accommodate the 24 jurors of a grand jury can still be seen. The grand jury would evaluate charges and return what was called a "true bill" if the charges were to proceed. The practice gradually disappeared in Canada over the course of the twentieth century, ultimately being abolished in 1984 when the Nova Scotia courts formally ended the practice.
The first instance of a grand jury can be traced back to the Assize of Clarendon, an 1166 act of Henry II of England. In fact, Henry's chief effect on the development of the English monarchy was to increase the jurisdiction of the royal courts at the expense of the feudal courts. Itinerant justices on regular circuits were sent out once each year to enforce the "King's Peace". To make this system of royal criminal justice more effective, Henry employed the method of inquest used by William the Conqueror in the Domesday Book. In each shire a body of important men was sworn (jur ) to report to the sheriff all crimes committed since the last session of the circuit court. Thus originated the modern grand jury that presents information for an indictment. The grand jury was later recognized by King John in Magna Carta in 1215 on demand of the nobility.
England abandoned grand juries in 1933 and instead uses a committal procedure.
In Ireland, grand juries were active during the Lordship of Ireland in parts of the island under the control of the English government - The Pale. They mainly functioned as local government authorities at the county level, as well as having a pre-trial judicial function for serious criminal cases. Members were the local payers of rates, who selected new members. They were usually wealthy "country gentlemen" (i.e. landowners, farmers and merchants):
From 1691 to 1793, Dissenters and Roman Catholics were excluded from membership. They were replaced by democratically-elected County Councils by the Local Government (Ireland) Act 1898.
New Zealand abolished the grand jury in 1961.
A grand jury investigating the fire that destroyed the Arcadia Hotel in Boston, Massachusetts in 1913. In the early decades of the United States grand juries played a major role in public matters. During that period counties followed the traditional practice of requiring all decisions be made by at least twelve of the grand jurors, (e.g., for a twenty-three-person grand jury, twelve people would constitute a bare majority). Any citizen could bring a matter before a grand jury directly, from a public work that needed repair, to the delinquent conduct of a public official, to a complaint of a crime, and grand juries could conduct their own investigations. In that era most criminal prosecutions were conducted by private parties, either a law enforcement officer, a lawyer hired by a crime victim or his family, or even by laymen. A layman could bring a bill of indictment to the grand jury; if the grand jury found there was sufficient evidence for a trial, that the act was a crime under law, and that the court had jurisdiction, it would return the indictment to the complainant. The grand jury would then appoint the complaining party to exercise the authority of an attorney general, that is, one having a general power of attorney to represent the state in the case. The grand jury served to screen out incompetent or malicious prosecutions. The advent of official public prosecutors in the later decades of the 19th century largely displaced private prosecutions.
While all states currently have provisions for grand juries, today approximately half of the states employ them and only twenty-two require their use, to varying extents.
- Inquests in England and Wales
- Committal procedure
- Immunity from prosecution
- Counties of Ireland
- Grand juror handbooks from the court system
- U.S. Federal Grand Jury Handbook (PDF)
- Handbook for Hennepin County (Minnesota) Grand Jurors (PDF)
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