In the eighteenth century, most military crimes were tried at the Regimental level. In theory, the military law of the day decreed that the General Courts Martial be reserved for major offenses: those that might result in capital sentences or lashings of great magnitude. Murder, rape, robbery, and other crimes deemed capital undgr eighteenth century civil law, were tried at the General Courts Martial, as were specific military crimes that seriously affected the ongoing life of the armed forces—mutiny, desertion, and the like. As one would expect, there were many more petty crimes than major offenses. Still, the General Courts Martial books show a surprisingly small number of cases, even in wartime, when the army grew precipitously to meet a military threat.
For most soldiers, crime and punishment was administered by the Regimental Courts, yet we know very little about them. There are no Regimental Courts Martial records to speak of and few surviving accounts of their procedures. What we do know suggests that they were very important to those military officers who were responsible for the order and discipline of the British army.
Until 1718, the rules and procedures governing Regimental Courts Martial were vague and uncertain. In that year, a modest attempt was made to codify RCM procedures. It was decreed that the RCM could inflict corporal punishment for such crimes as neglect of duty and disorderly conduct in quarters, among others, and that all such trials had to be conducted by five commissioned officers. Conviction was decided by a plurality of votes. Significantly, the oath, used previously when officers were called upon to serve as judge and jury, was eliminated in Regimental Courts Martial cases. As a result, the Judge Advocate noted some years later, “since that time the Prisoner has not had the benefit of that great and I may say, only security to be fairly and impartially tried.”