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Courts Near Agecroft Hall: The Quarter Sessions and Leet Courts

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Court business at the four yearly Quarter sessions and the local manorial and leet courts dealt with daily life closer to that of the common man.

Quarter Sessions:

Quarter sessions handled petty offenses with limited civil jurisdiction. Unpaid Justices of the Peace presided over these sessions (usually two JPs) with a chairman and a jury. Sessions usually lasted about 3 days and handled minor offenses as well as preliminary hearings for more serious crimes. Quarter sessions were conducted in the seat of each county and county borough. These sessions in Northwest England traditionally took place at Lancaster Castle. Crimes punishable by capital punishment or life imprisonment went to the assizes.

Administrative issues at the quarter sessions centered around roads, bridges, goals (prisons), public house licensing, English poor laws, and setting wages and prices. By the 1590’s, as quarter session caseloads increased, two magistrates would meet monthly and dispense justice without a jury. These were called “petty sessions”.

A list of indictments at quarter sessions in Kent at the beginning of the 17th century indicates offenses were: 68% administrative and 32% criminal.

Courts Leet:

Source: Reading Museum

The Court Leet (“light”) was the court that the residents of Agecroft Hall and local working men and women would have been most familiar with. As a royal court of record, the courts leet were conducted twice-yearly and were the lowest level of the Tudor court hierarchy that considered criminal offenses. They were most important for punishing petty crime and met in October, after Michaelmas, and in the spring after Easter.

The courts leet could not deal in statutory law but, rather, with most matters arising from common law. These courts were popular for their leniency. They primarily handled cases between neighbors and private grievances concerning common land, assaults and affrays, assizes of bread and ale, selection of law enforcement officers, and keeping the peace. After 1600, focus was shifted from violence and disorder towards more issues concerning infrastructure.

Some common nuisances that might be addressed were breaching the King’s peace (like the man who played his drum in the night to others’ ire), cutting timber without a license, eavesdropping, failure to maintain fences, and blocking roads with dunghills. Cases of trouble between neighbors included grazing infected livestock on common land, scolding (gossiping), “night walking”, unlawful gaming and harboring vagrants. Punishments were flexible and many were issued “on pain of..”. Defendants left court with a warning that they needed to correct their unlawful behavior or pay a fine if they were brought to court a second time.





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