Star Chamber

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The Star Chamber (Latin Camera stellata) was an English court of law that sat at the royal Palace of Westminster until 1641. It was made up of Privy Counsellors, as well as common-law judges, and supplemented the activities of the common-law and equity courts in both civil and criminal matters. The court was set up to ensure the fair enforcement of laws against prominent people, those so powerful that ordinary courts could never convict them of their crimes. Court sessions were held in secret, with no indictments, no right of appeal, no juries, and no witnesses. Evidence was presented in writing. Over time it evolved into a political weapon and became a symbol of the misuse and abuse of power by the English monarchy and courts.

It was mistakenly thought that in 1487 an act was passed which established a special "Court of Star Chamber" to deal with the nobles; however, the only legislation passed in that year in this context was to set up a tribunal to prevent the intimidation of juries and to stop retaining, the keeping of private armies by persons of rank. It seems to have gone out of use by 1509 and it had no connection with the later Court of Star Chamber whose primary purpose was to hear political libel and treason cases.

In modern usage, legal or administrative bodies with strict, arbitrary rulings and secretive proceedings are sometimes called, metaphorically or poetically, star chambers. This is a pejorative term and intended to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the proceedings. The inherent lack of objectivity of any politically motivated charges has led to substantial reforms in English law in most jurisdictions since that time.

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Name origins

The court took its name from the "Star Chamber" or "Starred Chamber" which was built in the reign of King Edward II specifically for the meetings of the King's Council, though the origins of the name of the room itself are unclear.

The first reference to the chamber[1] is in 1398, as the Sterred chambre; the more common form of the name appears in 1422 as le Sterne-chamere. Both forms recur throughout the fifteenth century, with Sterred Chambre last attested as appearing in the Supremacy of the Crown Act 1534. No clear etymology can be found for the name of the chamber; the most common explanation, dating to the later sixteenth century, is "because at the first all the roofe thereof was decked with images of starres gilted". Whilst there is no documentary evidence that the room was decorated in this manner, it is regarded as the most likely explanation by the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary.[2]

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