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What Is an Inquisitorial System?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 16, 2024
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An inquisitorial system is a legal system in which the court itself, typically acting through a judge or similar agent, takes a direct interest in the facts of a case and the determination of guilt or blame. In this type of system, the judge or other court representative will be involved in questioning those involved in a case and not merely act as a representative for the rule of law. This type of system is in contrast to an adversarial system in which two representatives argue the merits of a case before a judge or jury. An inquisitorial system is often used in a number of different types of cases in numerous countries.

Due to the potential for negative connotations associated with the term “inquisitorial system,” this type of system can also be referred to as a “non-adversarial system.” In an adversarial system, such as the system commonly used in US courts to determine major civil and criminal cases, two representatives argue the merits of the case. Lawyers represent one of the parties involved in the case, and the judge as the representative of the courts serves primarily to ensure that laws are properly upheld in the court. Unlike an inquisitorial system, the judge is primarily meant to ensure that the policies and laws regarding trial practices are followed correctly.

In this type of system, on the other hand, the judge or other court representative takes a more active role in a trial. He or she may directly question suspects and witnesses, and serves not only to ensure proper accordance to legal procedure, but is part of the procedure. This type of system can often be seen in military tribunals or multi-national trials of individuals accused of crimes against humanity or war crimes. An inquisitorial system can also be utilized for summary hearings for minor criminal infractions and misdemeanors to expedite the proceedings.

Modern usage of this system can often be traced to the legal practices of medieval Europe. Prior to the Inquisitions of the Catholic Church in the 12th and 13th centuries, most legal matters were settled through courts utilizing adversarial methods. Such methods were quite different from those found in modern courts, however, with practices including the use of “Trial by Combat” to settle disputes. The Inquisitions, however, introduced the inquisitorial system as Ecclesiastical courts were established that could call witnesses and hear testimony without prior accusation by others. These courts were also allowed to pass judgment on those that they had accused of heresy, establishing a system in which the court itself acted as both prosecutor and judge.

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