What is a court leet?

A court leet is an English criminal court for the punishment of local offences. Established as part of the manorial system introduced by William the Conqueror (1066), most courts of this type had their legal jurisdiction abolished in 1977 under the Administration of Justice Act. Only those manorial courts which still operated were allowed to continue, one of which was Spaunton. The term “leet” denotes a territorial and jurisdictional area.

How does a court leet compare to other criminal courts?

  • Magistrates’ Courts deal with minor criminal offences and are presided over either by a district judge or up to three magistrates who also decide any punishment. Punishments can include fines and/or imprisonment. There is no jury. More serious cases are passed to the Crown Court.

  • The Crown Court normally has a jury which decides the guilt or innocence of the accused, and is presided over by a judge who decides the sentence.

  • A Court Leet deals with punishment of small local offences by way of fines. It is presided over by the Steward of the Lord of the Manor. The jury determines cases presented before the Court and also the level of any fine. The Court Leet does not have powers of imprisonment.

The role of Spaunton Court Leet

Spaunton Court Leet serves two main purposes. The first is to protect the Manorial land within the Manor – that is to say the common and wastes of the Manor (this includes village greens and verges). The second is to protect the rights of those who hold Common Rights.

The majority of the business of the Court is dealing with encroachments onto the common, an encroachment being anything which interferes with the surface of the common and prevents access by grazing animals or by Common Right holders. Examples include fencing, buildings, storage of materials, signs, etc. It is the Court’s decision whether or not to allow encroachments onto the common, and to set the conditions under which an encroachment is allowed.

Where and when does Spaunton Court Leet sit?

The Court Leet of the Manor of Spaunton usually sits once a year on the first Thursday in October at the Manor House, Spaunton, starting at 10am. Members of the public are welcome to attend to observe proceedings.

Who does what at Spaunton Court Leet?

The Court Leet consists of 14 of the owners of the common rights, 12 of whom are Jurymen and 2 Affearors (collectors of fines). The jury determines cases presented to the Court. There is also a Bailiff, an Assistant Bailiff, a Steward and a Pinder. The Steward is a solicitor – he effectively chairs proceedings and provides legal advice to the jury where needed. The Bailiff is appointed and paid for by the Lord of the Manor to collect the fines levied by the Court, aided by the Assistant Bailiff. Traditionally the Pinder’s job was to impound stray stock (in “pinfolds”) and monitor the flocks of sheep grazed on the common.

What happens to the money collected through fines?

Income raised by the Court Leet of the Manor of Spaunton is used to manage and improve the common land. Examples include bracken and thistle control and the maintenance and improvement of tracks. A contribution is also made to the cost of the Steward (but not the Bailiff or Assistant Bailiff who are paid directly by the Lord of the Manor). Additionally contributions are made to Village Caretaker Schemes whereby residents maintain village greens to a particular standard for their own and others’ enjoyment.

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