Court leet

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The court leet was a historical court baron (a manorial court) of England and Wales and Ireland that exercised the "view of frankpledge" and its attendant police jurisdiction,[1] which was normally restricted to the hundred courts.

History[edit]

At a very early time in medieval England the Lord of the Manor exercised or claimed certain jurisdictional rights over his tenants and bondsmen concerning the administration of his manor and exercised those rights through his court baron. However this court had no power to deal with criminal acts.

Criminal jurisdiction could, however, be granted to a trusted lord by the Crown by means of an additional franchise to give him the prerogative rights he owed feudally to the king. The most important of these was the "view of frankpledge", by which tenants were held responsible for the actions of others within a grouping of ten households.[2] In the later Middle Ages the lord, when exercising these powers, gained the name of leet which was a jurisdiction of a part of a county, hence the franchise was of court leet.

The quo warranto proceedings of Edward I established a sharp distinction between the court baron, exercising strictly manorial rights, and the court leet, depending for its jurisdiction upon royal franchise.[1] However in many areas it became customary for the two courts to meet together.

Role[edit]

The court leet was a court of record, and its duty was not only to view the pledges, which were the freemen's oaths of peacekeeping and good practice in trade, but also to try by jury, and punish, all crimes committed within the jurisdiction. The most serious crimes were committed to the King's Justices.[1][2]

It also developed as a means of proactively ensuring that standards in such matters as sales of food and drink, and agriculture, were adhered to. The Alcester Court Leet contained the following wording:[3]

To enquire regularly and periodically into the proper condition of watercourses, roads, paths, and ditches; to guard against all manner of encroachments upon the public rights, whether by unlawful enclosure or otherwise; to preserve landmarks, to keep watch and ward in the town, and overlook the common lands, adjust the rights over them, and restraining in any case their excessive exercise, as in the pasturage of cattle; to guard against the adulteration of food, to inspect weights and measures, to look in general to the morals of the people, and to find a remedy for each social ill and inconvenience. To take cognisance of grosser crimes of assault, arson, burglary, larceny, manslaughter, murder, treason, and every felony at common law.

The court generally sat only a few times each year, sometimes just annually. A matter was introduced into the court by means of a "presentment", from a local man or from the jury itself. Penalties were in the form of fines or imprisonment.

The court leet began to decline in the fourteenth century, being superseded by the more modern county Justices of the Peace and ultimately magistrates' courts, but in many cases courts leet operated until nearly the middle of the nineteenth century as a form of civil administration with a similar role to borough freemen or parish vestrymen.[1]

The jury and officers[edit]

Attendance at the Court Leet was often compulsory for those under its jurisdiction and some Courts still levy a nominal fine for non-attendance, 2p for example in the case of Laxton.[4]

Court Leets generally had a jury formed from the freehold tenants, as bondsmen could not give an oath.[1] The jury's role was similar to that of the doomsmen of the Anglo-Saxons and included electing the officers (other than the Steward who was appointed by the lord), bringing matters to the attention of the court and deciding on them.[5][6]

The Officers of Courts Leet could include some or all of the following:[3][5][7][8]

  • Steward, the chief official of the lord of the manor, and a judge.[1][9]
  • Bailiff, summonsed the Jury and, if necessary, performed arrests, as well as generally supervising court matters.[1][9]
  • Constable (Tithingman), to ensure law and order during court sessions.
  • Ale taster, to ensure the quality of ale, and to check that true measures are used.
  • Carniters or "flesh tasters", to ensure the freshness of meat and poultry.
  • Bread Weighers, responsible for verifying the freshness and weight of bread sold in the Manor.[7]
  • Affeerers, responsible for assessing amercements (setting the level of fines)
  • Searcher and Sealer of Leather, to ensure the quality of leather goods.
  • The Hayward, responsible for enclosures and fences on common land.
  • Surveyor of the Highways or Overseer of Pavements, and Brook Looker, to ensure the proper condition of roads and waterways
  • Mace Bearer
  • Town Crier

Modern times[edit]

Role[edit]

Courts Leet survived for formal purposes until their legal criminal jurisdiction was abolished in 1977 by section 23 of the Administration of Justice Act 1977. One exception was allowed, namely the Court Leet for the manor of Laxton, Nottinghamshire,[4] which was allowed to keep its jurisdiction to administer and settle disputes over the open field system of farming which still operates in that area.[10] o

The Act stated that "Any such court may continue to sit and transact such other business, if any, as was customary for it" and Schedule 4 to the Act specified the business which was to be considered customary, which included the taking of presentments relating to matters of local concern and in some cases the management of common land.[11]

Courts Leet existing today[edit]

The following Courts Leet marked with # were known to be still functioning in 2010. Those exempted from abolition by the Administration of Justice Act 1977 are marked by an *, however there is no indication of how many of the others are still operative:

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g [Anon.] (1911) "Court Leet", Encyclopaedia Britannica
  2. ^ a b Ritson, J., The Jurisdiction of the Court Leet (1809): Introduction – Full text available on Google Books
  3. ^ a b c Alcester Court Leet
  4. ^ a b c Laxton Court Leet, Dovecote Inn, Laxton – retrieved 23 May 2009
  5. ^ a b c The Court Leet of the Worshipful Town Mayor and Chief Burgesses of Warwick – retrieved 23 May 2009
  6. ^ Reiber De Windt, Anne (1991). "Local Government in a Small Town: A Medieval Leet Jury and its Constituents". Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies (North American Conference on British Studies) 23 (4): 627. JSTOR 4050744. 
  7. ^ a b Officers of Wareham Court Leet – retrieved 23 May 2009
  8. ^ The Court Leet and Court Baron of the Manor of Henley-in-Arden – retrieved 23 May 2009
  9. ^ a b Scriven, J., A Treatise on Copyholds, Customary Freeholds, Ancient Demesne and the Jurisdiction of Courts Baron and Courts Leet (1823): Part III, Chapter XVIII – Full text available on Google Books
  10. ^ Per the Lord Chancellor in the House of Lords Debate on the Administration of Justice Bill on 2 May 1977 vol 382 cc816-23
  11. ^ Schedule 4 of the Administration of Justice Act 1977, as amended, from the UK Statute Law Database.
  12. ^ Held by the Town Council
  13. ^ "Bromsgrove Court Leet". Retrieved 2010-12-13. 
  14. ^ Report of Hatherleigh Court Leet - retrieved 26 May 2009
  15. ^ "The Manor of Henley-in-Arden Court Leet & Court Baron". Retrieved 2010-12-13. 
  16. ^ Town Council, for admission of Freemen
  17. ^ City Council Southampton Court Leet, City of Southampton Society – retrieved 23 May 2009
  18. ^ http://www.guildablemanor.org
  19. ^ Wareham Court Leet
  20. ^ "Taunton's Court Leet law day upholds tradition". Somerset County Gazette. 25 November 2010. Retrieved 2010-12-13. 

Bibliography[edit]

  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
  • Baker, J. H. (2002). An Introduction to English Legal History (4th ed. ed.). London: Butterworths. ISBN 0-406-93053-8.