(A friend of mine referred me to a legal history book concerning early colonial America which seems to embody the ideal I’ve frequently spoke about, a legal system simple enough to be used by the masses.)
The records that have been examined exhibit everywhere, especially in the popular courts, a great informality in judicial proceedings. The large number of judges in these courts would of itself tend to make the practice informal, to make the trial more like a deliberation of a community by its representatives on the justice or injustice of the case involved. The absence of a jurist class, and especially the universal prejudice against lawyers, proves that a popular and not a technical system was being enforced. The technical knowledge of the lawyer was not demanded, and, like Lechford, the lawyers had to turn their hands to semi-professional or non-professional work, the courts of the colonies at that date having no need of the aid of a trained profession to discover what was the law, as by the custom of the time the law was in so many cases determined by the discretion of the court. It seems just to conclude that in most cases the administration of law was carried on not according to the technical rules of a developed system of jurisprudence but by a popular tribunal according to the general popular sense of right.
The original elements in the early colonial laws are great in number and import. They foreshadow and anticipate some of the most far-reaching American law reforms. Pleading is simplified, and the intention is in many places expressed that it shall be possible for any man of ordinary intelligence to plead his own cause before the courts. This innovation supports the same conclusions that we have reached from the facts of the institution of popular courts and the absence of trained jurists. Evidence was in many colonies given in writing, or at least taken down by the clerk and made a part of the record in the action; a practice utterly abhorrent to common law ideas, not so to the popular mind to whom the evidence is the most important part of the case. Various modifications of the jury system have been noted, but in general this venerable and highly popular institution was finally adopted in the colonies in its English form at an early date.
Paul Reinsch: English Common Law in the Early American Colonies
The historian will be interested in the reversion to the more ancient customs of the common law which we have ascertained in a number of cases… We have seen how archaic ideas of the jury were revived; Georgia, even after the period of independence, using a system of controlling the jury that was modelled on the old method of attaint. We have also seen how the idea of tort liability for crimes was revived, an idea that has been in the last decades again enforced with new emphasis by our legislatures. But the most important and interesting revival of older institutions is found in the popular courts composed of a comparatively large number of judges, recalling the twelve thanes of early English law, who declared law and custom in a simple, straightforward manner. Men here appear to plead their own causes, unassisted save by the unremunerated help of a friend or by the court itself. The court is not a trained judge, drawing his knowledge from, and supporting his judgment upon the accumulated wisdom of ages of legal development, but a popular committee representative of the people and enforcing the general popular custom and sense of justice.
This was the spirit which Made America Great. This original means for administering justice and law should by all means be revived.