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The court leet was a historical court in England and Wales.

History

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

Criminal jurisdiction could, however, be granted to a trusted Lord by the Crown by means of an additional franchises 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. Some time 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. However it many areas it became customary for the two courts to meet together.

Role

The court leet was a court of record, and its duty was not only to view the pledges (the freemen's oath of peacekeeping and good practice in trade) but also to try by jury, and punish, all crimes committed within the jurisdiction (although more serious crimes were committed to the King's Justices).

It also developed as a means of proactively ensuring that standards in such matters as food and drink, and agriculture, were adhered to.

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The court leet began to decline in the fourteenth century, being superseded by the more modern county Justices of the Peace and ultimately magistrates' courts, but in many cases courts leet operated until nearly the middle of the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.

The Jury and Officers

Attendance at the Court Leet was often compulsory for those under its jurisdiction and some Courts still levy a (very small) fine for non-attendance – 2p for example.

Court Leets generally had a jury formed from the free tenants, as bondsmen could not give an oath. The jury's role 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.

The Steward of the manor became of the court's judge, presiding wholly in a judicial character, with the executive acts being carried out by the bailiff.

The Officers of Courts Leet varied but could include some or all of the following:
  • The Steward – the chief official of the Lord of the Manor.
  • The Bailiff – summonsed the Jury and, if necessary, carried out arrests, as well as generally supervising court matters.
  • Constables (Tithingmen) - to ensure law and order during court sessions.
  • Ale tasters - to ensure the quality (by tasting) of ale, and 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 the bread sold in the Manor.
  • 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

Role

Courts Leet survived for formal purposes until their legal (criminal) jurisdiction was abolished in the 1970s by section 23 of the Administration of Justice Act 1977. One exception was allowed: the Court Leet for the Manor of Laxtonmarker which was allowed to keep its jurisdiction to administer and settle any disputes over the open field system of farming which still operates in that area.

However 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.

Courts Leet existing today

The following list of Courts Leet still in existence is mostly taken from the Administration of Justice Act 1977:



References

Bibliography

  • 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.



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