Custom of the Manor – A Glossary: Court Leet

scale of justice

Source: Wikipedia commons

The court leet was a criminal court and administrative institution that had a local geographical jurisdiction connected with a hundred, lordship or manor.  The right to hold a court leet was granted by the king, often along with the property and jurisdictional rights of a manor.  Consequently, many, but not all, manors had a court leet.

In the manorial context, the lord’s steward acted as judge and the jury were drawn from eligible people living within the manor.  The ‘view of frankpledge’ identified members of a tithing, a company of householders (originally ten, later twelve) who took responsibility for law and order.  The frankpledge system dates back to Saxon times.  The records of the court leet were frequently kept in the same court rolls as the court baron and some manors held joint sessions for the two courts.

The court leet was restricted to trying cases of Common Law, developed by the courts rather than codified by statute.  Criminal offenses are those against the crown, state or community, so include violence, theft and generally undesirable behaviour.  As a local court, the court leet dealt with minor criminal offenses and the indictment or formal accusation of serious crimes, which were then prosecuted in a superior court.  Legal scholars disagree on the court’s powers of punishment.  Ritson asserts the court could imprison offenders, disagreeing with the influential Coke’s opinion that the court could only impose fines.

Administrative functions included the regulation of trade such as measures of bread and ale.

Although originally important, the court leet declined over centuries. Its jurisdiction was eroded by the establishment of new courts, especially the Quarter Sessions and magistrate’s courts, and codification of the law; and administrative functions passed to other institutions such as town boroughs. A few court leets still survive, but retain only ceremonial functions.

Legal Latin terms for the court leet are curia leta, curia magna (big court tries criminal cases), and curia cum visufranciplegii (court with a view of frankpledge).

© Sue Adams


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