The communal courts predated the Norman invasion of England. They applied law which was based on custom and varied accordance with the locality. It included certain legislative rules emanating from the Crown.
Prior to the Norman invasion, England was divided into hundreds, shires and towns. The communal courts were the shire or later county courts or the hundred court.
Shire courts dealt with judicial and administrative matters. The presiding officer was an Ealdorman appointed by the Crown. He was entitled to one-third of the profits of the court.
After the Norman invasion, the shire was changed to a county. The presidency passed to a sheriff. The county courts exercised a number of types of jurisdiction.
Certain matters were removed from the courts and transferred to the Royal Courts, ecclesiastical courts or Pleas of the Crown. They retained jurisdiction in relation to civil matters of value below 40 shillings and certain other jurisdiction.
The sheriff was responsible for the administration of the county. The county court has a mechanism for exercise of the sheriff’s functions which he presided over as judge.
The sheriff could hear pleas on certain royal writs, prior to transfer of pleas to the courts of common pleas. The third type of jurisdiction involve the king’s justices acting as representative in the counties in matters of administration and justice. They later acted as judges in the county court.
The court consisted of a president and a number of suitors. The suitors had rights to attend the king’s traveling court. Suitors were obliged to attend the county town to hear cases brought before the courts.
Suitor’s qualifications derived from land ownership. The duty of suitor was an incident of the ownership or tenure of their land and was potentially owner.
Legislation in 1236 allowed freemen to discharge the obligation by an attorney. In other cases, the duty was delegated to underlords.
The main function of suitors was to determine how the parties to an action to prove their case. They were not legally trained.
Over time the sheriff’s jurisdiction declined. Procedure in the court became obscure and obsolescent. Suitors became less able to pronounce on technical matters of law.
Over time the itinerant justices came to dominate the county courts. Ultimately the county courts were abolished and reestablished under the County Courts Act 1846.
The hundreds or divisions of England which had their origin in an pre-Norman time. In the middle ages, certain of the hundreds fell into private homes and were purchased.
The jurisdiction of the hundreds was customary and limited to matters arising in the hundreds. The courts met every two weeks.
Suitors in the hundred court were drawn from less important families than those providing suitors in the county court. The president is often the hundred reeve. The decisions of the hundred court could be reviewed by the county court. Alleged or false judgment laid to the court of common plea.
Over time the jurisdiction of the hundred court reduced for much the same reasons as happened in the case of the county court.
The baronial courts were established by major landowners of land who held under military tenure. Their properties were considered a barony or honour. The court often known as the court of the Honour was attended by tenants who held immediately from the lord.
The principal concern was the administration of the barony’s estate. Disputes regarding land held at the lord and allocation of the incidents of knight service were heard.
Franchise courts were privately owned. Their owners enjoyed a franchise or privilege of jurisdiction. The jurisdiction usually involves petty crime. It was exercised before a court leet.
In 1274, an enquiry was commenced into franchises which are privately held. Commissions were sent to the country to examine private franchises and establish how far they interfered with royal justice. Following the returns of the enquiry, the Statute of Gloucester provided and regulated the validity of franchises. Where there was a absence of proof of title continuous use since 1189 would suffice.
The seigniorial courts in accordance with the continental feudalism were incidents of tenure of land. They included rights of private jurisdiction over the lord’s tenants who held from him by free service. The seigniorial courts included baronial courts, franchise courts and manorial courts.
The manorial courts existed in a single manor comprising the lord’s land, his demesne waste land, land held by his free tenants and land by his villein tenants.
Manorial courts exercised jurisdiction over the lord’s free tenants and villeins, This involved resolution of disputes concerning ownerships of holding and enforcing of customary rules.Manorial courts continued for several century, in some cases through to the 19th century.
The Statute of Marlborough 1267 provided that free tenants were not obliged to carry out a duty of suit in o their lord’s court unless this had been provided in the grant of land or was carried out prior to 1230.
There were two types of manorial courts. The Court baron dealt with freeholders. The president was the lord’s steward. The parties were free tenants. The court customary was held for villein tenants. The lord’s steward acted as judge not president.
Decline of Manorial Courts
The seigniorial courts declined and ultimately ceased to exit. As the royal court extended their jurisdiction, the administration of justice became more centralised, and the royal court provided a more efficient procedure and reasonable remedy.
Various legal fictions were used to remove actions from the seigniorial courts to the Kings Court. They included fictitious waivers of lord’s jurisdiction and a fictitious allegation that justice has been denied in a seigniorial court.
Scutage allowed for the obligation of suit of court and other personal services to be waived in lieu of money. The Statute of Marlborough relieved the burden of suitors to a certain extent. Quia Emptores 1290 decreased the number of layers of subinfeudation and accordingly the number of those liable for suit of court declined.