COURTS (Medieval Ireland)

Within the later medieval lordship of Ireland there existed five different types of court: royal courts, communal courts, town courts, private courts, and ecclesiastical courts. Royal courts functioned in much the same general way as their counterparts in England, in accordance with a model established in the last quarter of the twelfth century. They were run by small groups of fulltime justices appointed by or in the name of the king. They required specific written royal authorization for most of the business they heard, and they kept a full written record of that business. Although there are references from the early thirteenth century onward to a king’s court in Ireland, it does not seem to have been constituted on the classic English royal court model. It is only in 1221 that we first find a royal court run by a group of justices and holding sessions (assise), both in Dublin and elsewhere in individual counties in the lordship. By the middle of the thirteenth century its sessions in Dublin were coming to be described as sessions of the Dublin Bench, and those sessions had a distinctive countrywide civil jurisdiction of their own. The Dublin Bench only, however, became a fully independent court with its own separate group of justices and meeting on a regular daily basis during four terms each year (on the model of its Westminster namesake) in the 1270s. The irregular sessions held by the same group of royal justices (and from the 1270s onward a separate group of royal justices) outside Dublin (and from time to time in Dublin itself for County Dublin) resembled sessions of the General Eyre in England, with the same mixture of civil and criminal jurisdiction and responsibility for conducting local inquiries. These general county visitations, however, ceased at around the same time as their English counterparts, after the first quarter of the fourteenth century. By then the most urgent civil business was being heard (as in England) on a much more frequent basis by assize justices, and the more urgent criminal business by justices of jail delivery: from 1310 onward the same justices seem to have been commissioned for both kinds of business. The earliest evidence of a separate justi-ciar’s court comes only from the second half of the thirteenth century, and the first evidence of that court meeting on a regular basis only from 1282. Prior to the fifteenth century it seems to have traveled around the lordship with the chief governor, but then (like its English counterpart, the court of King’s Bench) came to be stationary in a single place (Dublin). When Richard II visited Ireland in 1395 it became for a while his own itinerant court, and thereafter it retained the name of King’s Bench. One other royal court emerged in Ireland in the last quarter of the fifteenth century: the Irish court of chancery. Like its English counterpart (which had emerged almost a century earlier), this was a court of equity with only a single judge (the Irish chancellor), and it heard business on the basis of bills submitted to it.

The communal courts of the lordship were local courts serving specific areas of the lordship. Like their English counterparts, the running of these courts was shared by local officials who presided over their proceedings, and by local landowners with an obligation to attend the court on a regular basis as one of its "suitors" and who were responsible for making judgments in them. They also shared with their English counterparts the practice of meeting only on an occasional basis and for fixed intervals of time. At the upper level of these communal courts were the county courts, presided over by sheriffs, which served the individual counties of the lordship, whether in royal hands or part of the greater liberties. These possessed a mainly civil jurisdiction, but were also the venue for all outlawries. At the more local level were the courts of the individual cantreds (later baronies), which corresponded to the English hundred, or wapentake, courts. These seem to have possessed a minor civil jurisdiction, but it was also at these courts that the local sheriff held twice each year the sheriff’s tourn, to enquire into various misdemeanours and more serious criminal offences committed locally. Towns within the lordship also generally had their own courts, often described as hundred courts, and which came under the control of the town authorities. They normally met rather more often than other types of communal court and were the main courts for the enforcement of town custom. They also claimed an exclusive jurisdiction over civil litigation in the town.

The lordship possessed various different types of private court. In the earliest days of the lordship the great private courts of the lords of Leinster and Meath enjoyed a virtual independence. Between 1200 and 1208 these courts came under attack from the Crown, and the outcome was that henceforth major criminal pleas in these liberties were reserved to the lord of Ireland; that it became possible to appeal from the liberty courts to the king; and that lands belonging to the church within the liberties henceforward fell directly under royal jurisdiction. By the middle of the thirteenth century the major liberties possessed what seem to have been their own versions of the Dublin Bench, with a wide civil jurisdiction and run by justices appointed by the lord of the liberty. They also possessed private county courts that functioned like their royal counterparts, but whose profits went to the lord of the liberty. There also existed in the feudalized parts of Ireland manorial courts, with a civil and disciplinary jurisdiction roughly equivalent to that of their English counterparts.

Separate from this variegated network of lay courts were the courts run by the Catholic Church in Ireland as part of its European network of ecclesiastical courts at a diocesan and provincial level. The law enforced and applied in these courts was the Church’s canon law, but with some local modifications. They possessed jurisdiction over matrimonial and testamentary matters, over various types of moral offense, and over the internal running of the Church, except where the lay courts managed to make good their claim to determine certain matters, such as those involving property rights.

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