The Judiciary of English Law
English law has been a combination of local and royal government. The Curia Regis was initially presided over by the monarch. Local justice over criminal guilt could be determined by the court leet or baron and at times may include trial by ordeal. This was the case until almost the end of the 12th century. Trials could include the applications of red hot iron, boiling water or the dunking in deep water. Finally they were banned by William II and condemned by the Church in 1216. Trials by combat for civic cases eventually fell into disuse by 1818.
Judges, appointed court officials evolved in the twelfth century as ‘justices in eyre’. They were established under Henry II from a jury of twelve local knights to settle disputes over ownership of land. They were also the highest magistrates in medieval forest law and presided over the courts of justice-seat. Reference to eyre, meant that they were ‘circuit’ (assize) judges that moved between towns and forest courthouses.
These were the king’s men, comprised of senior clergy and lay. They became travelling wise men of the Court of Common Pleas. Eventually a more permanent Court of the King’s Bench evolved.
Magistrates Courts evolved locally from the moot and manorial courts. It was in 1285, during the reign of Edward I, when ‘good and lawful men’ were commissioned to keep the King’s peace. After 300 years the old assize courts were changed by the Law Terms Act 1830, to unify judgements with the Central Criminal Court in London.
In 1873 the Judicature Act merged common and equity law. Crown Courts were not actually established before 1956, in Liverpool and Manchester and finally under the Courts Act 1971
Justice and the Courts (Town Government)
The Portmanmote *(freemen’s court) formed the earliest of official local folkmotes, granted by king John 1200, they dealt with great and petty pleas (before the bailiffs). Courts of Petty pleas were formalised during the 14th century and the Great Court of Pleas touching ‘real property’ previously the prerogative of the portmanmote of the free burgesses, emerged as a separate body during the 15th century.
A third formal court had evolved during the 14th century called the Petty Court of Recognisances to witness single transactions. The leases of common sources of revenues, such as the markets, mills and quays were handled by the Portmanmote Great Court. Maritime court procedures were generally handled as an offshoot of the Petty Court.
The Court Leet, having its origins in the Anglo-Saxon law-and-order system applied the ancient folkright practice of Frankpledge – delegated by the Crown to franchise-holders (manorial lords or corporate towns) presided over by the bailiffs.
The four main Royal Courts, the Exchequer, Common Pleas, King’s Bench and the Chancery evolved from the King’s Council during the Middle Ages. Royal Courts operated by manor or borough were taken over by the Quarter Sessions. An 1876 Commission moved to remove self elected court activities before the initial reform of the Municipal Corporations Act 1883 and the courts leet (legal activities) were finally abolished by the 1977 Administration of Justice Act.
The predecessors of the Crown Court were the Assizes and Quarter Sessions. Until 1971 they sat for short sessions on a few occasions during a year.
NB The Portmote or *portmanmote (curia burgi) was the local civil court that later became the Court of Orders and Decrees.Privilege-of-Freedom