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Until the Medieval inquisition in the 12th century, the legal systems used in medieval Europe generally relied on the adversarial system to determine whether someone should be tried and whether that person is guilty or innocent. Under this system, unless people were caught in the act of committing crimes, they could not be tried for them until they had been formally accused, either by the voluntary accusations of a sufficient number of witnesses or by an inquest (an early form of grand jury) convened specifically for that purpose. A weakness of this system was that because it relied on the voluntary accusations of witnesses, and because the penalties for making a false accusation were severe, would-be witnesses could be hesitant to actually make their accusations to the court, for fear of implicating themselves. Because of the difficulties in deciding cases, procedures such as ordeal or combat were accepted, though it is now generally agreed that these procedures are not acceptable ways of finding truth or settling a dispute.
Beginning in 1198, Pope Innocent III issued a series of decretals that reformed the ecclesiastical court system. Under the new processus per inquisitionem (inquisitional procedure) an ecclesiastical magistrate no longer required a formal accusation to summon and try a defendant. Instead, an ecclesiastical court could summon and interrogate witnesses of its own initiative, and if the (possibly secret) testimony of those witnesses accused a person of a crime, that person could then be summoned and tried. In 1215, the Fourth Council of the Lateran affirmed the use of the inquisitional system. The council also forbade clergy from conducting trials by ordeal or combat. As a result, in parts of continental Europe, the ecclesiastical courts operating under the inquisitional procedure became the dominant method by which disputes were adjudicated. In France, the parlements — lay courts — employed inquisitorial proceedings.
In England, however, King Henry II had established separate secular courts during the 1160s. While the ecclesiastical courts of England, like those on the continent, adopted the inquisitional system, the secular common law courts continued to operate under the adversarial system. The adversarial principle that a person could not be tried until formally accused continued to apply for most criminal cases. In 1215 this principle became enshrined as article 38 of the Magna Carta: "No bailiff for the future shall, upon his own unsupported complaint, put anyone to his law, without credible witnesses brought for this purposes."
In the development of modern legal institutions which occurred in the 19th century, for the most part, most jurisdictions did not only codify their private law and criminal law, but the rules of civil procedure were reviewed and codified as well. It was through this movement that the role of an inquisitorial system became enshrined in most European civilian legal systems. However, there exist significant differences of operating methods and procedures between 18th century ancien régime courts and 19th century courts; in particular, limits on the powers of investigators were typically added, as well as increased rights of the defense.
It would be too much of a generalization to state that the civil law is purely inquisitorial and the common law adversarial. Indeed the ancient Roman custom of arbitration has now been adapted in many common law jurisdictions to a more inquisitorial form. In some mixed civil law systems, such as those in Scotland, Quebec and Louisiana, while the substantive law is civil in nature and evolution, the procedural codes that have developed over the last several hundred years are based upon the English adversarial system.
Read more about this topic: Inquisitorial System
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