Justice is coming: does ‘trial by combat’ actually exist?
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Game of Thrones, the critically acclaimed and award-winning fantasy TV drama has, sadly, come to an end this week with the season seven finale. Most of you will have heard of (or are indeed unhealthily addicted to) the show. The series, based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novel series, portrays war, romance and murder…as well as an interesting take on alternative dispute resolution: trial by combat.
Viewers of the show have seen characters invoke this legal ‘right' a number of times. And, as you’d expect, in Game of Thrones it’s simply a means by which someone can prove their innocence when accused of a crime by winning a fight to the death - in lieu of a standard trial. If the accused is triumphant, they are cleared of all charges. If they are beaten and have not been killed during the duel, they are found guilty and sentenced to death anyway.
But is trial by combat merely fiction? No, is the answer. Also known as ‘trial by battle’, ‘wager of battle’, or ‘judicial duel’, trial by combat has its origins in Germanic law as a method of settling accusations in the absence of witnesses or a confession in which two parties in dispute fought in single combat and the winner of the fight was proclaimed to be right. In essence, it was a judicially sanctioned duel. Its high point in the United Kingdom is most commonly thought to have been between the 11th and 15th Centuries, yet it was upheld as recently as 1818 in the case of Ashford v Thornton. Parliament abolished trial by battle the following year.
That brings us to the story of Leon Humphreys. In 2002 the 60-year-old unemployed mechanic, summoned to his local magistrates’ court for failure to pay a £25 fixed penalty, challenged the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) to trial by combat. He offered to take on the court clerk with "samurai swords, Ghurka knives or heavy hammers". To Mr Humphreys' (I imagine) disappointment, however, the magistrates declined his request and fined him £200 with a further £100 costs instead. Is it just a matter of time before a Game of Thrones-obsessed fan does likewise?
I’d been wondering where the phrase “fighting it out in court” came from…