Historic Communal Courts (of Freedom and Liberties)

Historic Communal Courts (of Freedom and Liberties)

Preamble: An early form of administrative court was tribal in origin. Based upon a system whereby all freeborn English and Welshmen (not serfs of slaves) on maturity, were organised in ‘kinship’ community groups. Originally covering territories of ten hides (hide = c120 acres). This represented an area one tenth of a Hundred. The spokesman or leader of each group was their ‘Tithingman’. Behaviour of these groups was recognised by a ‘View of Frankpledge’ to keep the peace and manage behaviour. Certain recognised customary ‘rights’ developed into local law (Folkright).

In ancient times the law was simply administered to local communities, verbally, in open gatherings at a given place marking their resident ‘Hundred’. There were few statutes, and the bulk of law was case law that through legislation in one form or another is considered to have dated from AD 600. Cases were brought on the basis of local custom. Most customary rules were similar in all parts of the country, but with some differences. For instance , rules of primogeniture, ‘gavelkind’ and intestacy. Such customs were eventually abolished under the Administration of Estates Act,1925.

In general, the present legal system began in the reign of Henry II (1154-1189). Norman legislation was by means of Royal Charter before the regulations of Henry II. The early courts were for the most part administered in local courts to their tenants in feudal courts, and by County Sheriffs, often sitting with the Earl and the Bishop in courts of the Shires and Hundreds. Mercantile Law was based upon customs and usages and developed separately from the common law.

Manorial courts developed locally; administered by their lord or his Steward before passing into County legislation. Other ‘local’ courts developed to deal with specific activities, the ancient boroughs had their Portmanmotes, Gildmotes and in most places there was a Court Leet and Baron to administer and record their presentments. Civil procedures in the Boroughs, from the 17th to the 19th centuries were generally adjudicated in the ‘Courts of Common Pleas’ and the ‘Courts of Orders and Decrees’. These old historic court activities are generally referred to as the ‘lower courts of law’ and have in most places been replaced by the Magistrates and County Courts. Much of the legislation, was absorbed into a single system headed by the High Court of Justice in c1880.

However, a large range of customary specific Courts continued to serve local communities. Many of these were curtailed or simply abolished entirely under the Administration of Justice Act 1977.

A descriptive list of these is as follows:

Courts Baron and Courts Leet, Customary Courts of the Manor. Courts of Pie Powdre. Courts of the Staple, Courts of the clerks of the markets. It includes the Common-law (or Sheriffs) county courts as known before the County Courts under Act of 1846. There were also the Hundred Courts, Law Days and the ‘Views of Frankpledge’.

Specific Courts have been mentioned, including:

Basingstoke Court of Ancient Demesne, the City of London Court of Husting, and the Sheriffs Courts for Poultry Compter and the Giltspur Street Compter. The Coventry Court of Orphans, the Great Grimsby Foreign Court, and the Kings Lynn Court of Tolbooths. At Newcastle-upon-Tyne the Courts of Conscience or Requests and Conservancy. Macclesfield Court of Portmote and Maidstone Court of Conservancy, the Melcombe Regis Court of Husting.

At Norwich there was a Court of Mayoralty, at Peterborough, the Dean and Chapter’s Court of Common Pleas. The St Albans Court of Requests and at Tiverton a Court of the Hundred Manor and Borough. At Wells in Somerset was an ancient Prescription Court. At Ramsey (Cambs), a Court of Pleas and at Ripon a Military Court along with a Ripon Dean and Chapter’s Common Fees Court.

There were Courts of Housing, Guildhall and Conservancy at York and at Cheney (or Cheyney) a Court of the Bishop of Winchester.

It seems that certain Courts have been legally able to continue in a limited form. For example, Alcester (Warks) Court Leet, Court Baron and Views of Frankpledge may take presentments with regard to matters of local concern. This also includes presentation of audited accounts of the manor and appointments of a Port Reeve and officers. The taking of presentments regarding matters of local concern applies to several existing Courts Leet and Baron including those at Ashburton, the Bideford Manor Court, Bowes in the County of Durham and the Ancient Court Leet and Court Baron of the Manor of Bromsgrove. The list goes on and clearly there are many historic Courts that are operating in some way (probably in charity form) to facilitate their communities.

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