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COURTS Leet and Courts Baron are not so seldom confounded nowadays as to render superfluous any account of the distinctions between them. They differ in their objects, jurisdiction, and procedure. And first as to Courts Leet.
In the beginning, the Crown was the sole fountain of justice, and where the king was, there was law administered. But increase of population led to a division of labour, and courts leet were ordained to deal with crimes and public nuisances within their several precincts. A court leet was otherwise called View of Frankpledge, for that at one of its sittings in the year the king was thereby informed by the view of the seneschal or steward of the number of people in each leet, as also of their good government and manners. An oath of fealty and allegiance to the king was there exacted of every person of twelve years of age who had for a year and day lived within the leet. The king's peace and obedience were the two things courts leet had to maintain and secure. The courts were opened with a triple "Oyez" or proclamation, for they were courts of the king, notwithstanding a subject might claim to hold them by ancient grant or prescription. The enquest or jury were at least twelve in number, and they were sworn, among other things, "to keep the king's counsel" (the court being the king's), and the suit to a court leet was called suit roial or suit real for the same reason, and was founded in residence merely, and not in tenure. In a court leet the seneschal, and not the suitors, was the judge. He was a judge of record, and could commit to gaol for felony, and fine for contempt. A leet was a court of record, and appeal therefrom was by writ of error. A steward of a leet could compel the bailiff to impanel an enquest to enquire for the king, and punish a first refusal by a fine of £40, and a second or other refusal by a fine of £50 or more, and so he could fine the enquest for any dereliction of duty. The amount of the fines he fixed himself, without the aid of affeerers, who—two in number—fixed or affeered other amercements. His fines were not traversable, and were therefore called fines, because there was an end of the matter.
All felonies and offences indictable at common law as being "against the peace of our Lord the "King, his crown and dignity," might be enquired of and presented in the leet, but not punished there. Any presentment of such had to be written out in an indenture, and one part thereof kept by the seneschal and the other by the jury, until delivered to the justices of assize at the next gaol delivery within the county.
It would take too long to give a list of defaults and offences which were not only enquirable and presentable, but were also punishable, in the leet. Among them, however, may be mentioned defaults of appearance on the part of residents and deciners [judges often] on the one hand, and of the capital pledges which had to be found for the good conduct of everyone who came within the district on the other. It was matter of presentment, also, if any of the age of twelve years, and resident for a year and day, had not taken the oath of allegiance. Runaway villeins who had not gone quit or without claim in the realm for a year and day were subjects of enquiry. If any customs or services due to the court were withdrawn, it was proper to consider how this had come about and who was to blame for it, and in what bailiff's time the loss had occurred.
To pass to larger matters—encroachments on land, wood and water, blocks raised or moved, ditches dug or filled so as to cause a public nuisance, came within the purview of the leet; as also the erection of any wall, house, fence or hedge, to the hurt of the people. The diversion of public roads, footpaths, streams or ditches, might claim its attention, and so might any alteration of public boundaries; and, above all, damage or obstruction or encroachment of and on the king's highway.
For offences, any breach of the public peace came rightly within the scope of court leet jurisdiction. The names of common barretors, as scolds and brawlers, were there presented; for such were a nuisance and disturbance to all their neighbours.
Breach of the common pound, or rescue of any person from the custody of the sheriff or his bailiffs or a king's officer, was matter for the leet. No enquest, furthermore, would do its duty which failed to present the names of eavesdroppers who lurk under walls or windows by night or day to hear tales and bear them to others, and so make strife and debate among their neighbours. Among evil members of the commonwealth, the leet visited with its restraints those who kept disorderly houses, as also vagabonds or hazarders, and those who walk by night and sleep in the day. Common haunters of taverns and alehouses and loafers without visible means of subsistence had their demerits sifted by the jury of the leet.
Another class of offences was also investigated, and may be mentioned as of interest to a shopkeeping community. False weights or measures or scales brought the cheating owner under the rod of the leet, and especially if he used " double pounds" in his business (the smaller to sell by, and the larger to buy with), to the deceit of the people. The sale of unwholesome victuals of any sort was cognisable in leet, as was also the exaction of an unreasonable price for good victuals—having regard, in the case of bread and ale, to the current price of grain, and in other things to the rates ruling in neighbouring places. It was at one time an offence to wear apparel beyond one's station in life. The statute in such case made was 24 Hen. VIII, c. 13, known as "the Statute of Apparel," and contraventions of this Act were made enquirable in leet by express words; otherwise the leet could not have <lealt with them, as being offences unknown to the common law.
Other statutory offences made expressly enquirable in leet were, unions of dealers to fix the price of victuals (2 Ed. VI, c. 15) or unions of artisans and labourers to fix wages or hours of labour (24 Hen. VIII, c. 12), and illegal games (33 Hen. VIII, eg).
Enough has been said to give a general idea of the scope of courts leet, and to lend good colour to the view which connects the word "leet" with "let," in the sense of hindrance.
A court leet was incident to a Hundred, and passed with it as parcel thereof, and severance was impossible. It could, by Magna Charta, be held only twice in the year, and that within the months of Michaelmas and Easter respectively. A presentment in leet made four days after the month, was void, as appears from Year Books 6 Hen. VII, fo. 1, and 38 Hen. VI and VII, Michaelmas Term. But the lord of a hundred might prescribe to hold a leet on a day certain, not within the months indicated. And such prescription was no infringement of the rule of law that no man may prescribe against a statute; for though Magna Charta was called " the statute" par excellence, it was in fact only common law. And where a day certain, out of the regular periods, was prescribed for a court leet in any hundred, a leet held in such hundred at any other time was void. (Y.B., 33 Hen. VI, fo. 7.) As to the place for holding the court, that might be anywhere within the hundred, at the pleasure of the lord; for a court of the king could be constituted wherever the king was, and he was, potentially or constructively, everywhere in the realm.
The tenants in court leet could make by-laws, which, if for the commonwealth, were binding on all who came into the hundred, and otherwise only those who assented to them. The assent of a majority of a township was the assent of the township. But they could not make by-laws to alter inheritances.
Among the officers of the leet, annually elected, were the reeve or bailiff, the greve or heyward or beadle, the affeerers, the ale-taster, and the constable.
When a court leet was kept by the sheriff, and he had to do so twice a year in each hundred, it was called the Sheriff's Tourn, which latter word means only that it was the sheriff's turn to hold a leet. It embraced more territory, but otherwise differed not from an ordinary court leet.
To come now to Courts Baron. These were ordained to determine injuries, trespasses, debts,