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Understanding Indictments

In the fourteenth century the word indictment was a technical expression for a written accusation which was not an appeal by an individual but the outcome of a solemn enquiry into the committing of offences. The indictment became the usual way of beginning criminal proceedings. In the case of misdemeanours tried at Quarter Sessions this could be the criminal information laid by a single individual rather than a presenting jury. Informations by private persons were encouraged by legislation, from the mid fifteenth century onwards, as a means of suppressing economic offences, with the informer being allowed a share of the penalty fine imposed on the criminal. Unfortunately this encouraged a breed known as 'common informers' who made a living by prying and accepting such awards. Indictments are written in Latin up to 1733, after which they may be written in English or Latin.

Those against whom a bill of indictment (that is, a formal criminal charge) had been made were first placed before a grand jury, whose function was to hear evidence for the Crown. If it was decided that there was a case to be answered by the accused, the indictment was declared to be a ‘true bill’ (billa vera); if not it was ‘no bill’ (ignoramus) [meaning we do not know]. In the former case, the accused then went forward to a full trial. The grand jury procedure was abolished in 1933.