In January, 1696, Parliament passed an act to reform the procedure used in treason trials. The consequences of this act were immense. It immediately changed the complexion of treason trials from that of conciliar hearings aimed at eliminating the government's enemies to that of actual trials which sought to establish guilt or innocence. Moreover, Parliament subsequently extended some of the key provisions of this act to criminal law proceedings, thus giving the 1696 statute a claim to being one of the well-springs of legal reform in modern England. Most important of all, however, was the effect the act had on politics. It helped to bring to a close an age in which politicians frequently attacked their opponents with charges of treason, and it thus played a part in opening a new age, one where less violent practices were employed in the political struggle.
It is not the least of ironies in English history that an act as important as the Treason Trials Act of 1696 should have received so little scholarly attention. The only historian to give the act more than a few pages is Samuel Rezneck in an article written in 1930. Most historians who work on the period follow the practice of such scholars as G. M. Trevelyan, David Ogg, and Sir Keith Feiling, and either fail to mention the act or note its passage in a sentence or two. Many scholars, especially those of an earlier generation, seem to assume that the act was a natural, perhaps inevitable, reaction to Stuart tyranny—that it was part of the light brought in by William and Mary at the end of a dark century—and, hence, that there is little need to discuss it.