CRIME AND JUSTICE Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval York sheriff court judicial administration reforms legal procedure justice lawyers jury trial surety bureaucracy sergeant scribes fees record keeping distraint
Subject: Reforms of judicial administration
Original source: York City Archives, Memorandum Book A/Y, ff.53-54
Transcription in: Maud Sellers, ed. York Memorandum Book, part I (1376-1419), Surtees Society, vol.120 (1911), 137-39.
Original language: French
Location: York
Date: ca.1400


First, that all those who, being plaintiffs or defendants in a case before the sheriffs of the city of York, do not have the means to hire lawyers or who have only petty pleas to prosecute or defend be allowed to speak on their own behalf, the plaintiffs stating the nature of their complaints and the defendants making a response according to the truth as they perceive it, without being given a hard time because lacking in legal advice.

[Jurors of] all inquests that are to be held before the sheriffs, at the instigation of a party, are to be impanelled and summoned to appear at the next court session following the parties having joined issue, without them taking or being given anything for that [participation]. They are to be distrained heavily, without any forbearance on the part of the court, until they come. And on all occasions they are to be the best [choices] and those closest [in knowledge of the matters under dispute], through whom the truth can best be ascertained, so that the parties do not face delays or obstructions due to the ineffectiveness of the court.

In future, sessions of the sheriffs' court are to be held as specified by the statute, under the supervision of men knowledgable in the law, in due manner and by due process, without partisans, conspirators, abettors, or false accusers. Those indicted in accordance with the law at the sheriffs' court sessions are to be released on bail upon payment of a reasonable fine, as was anciently the case, and may be delivered by their peers without a ransom during the term of office of those sheriffs, according to the law; with the exceptions of those indicted for homicide. Those who can legally be mainprised should be permitted to be mainprised without fine, according to the law.

Inquests held outside of the [regular] court sessions are to be conducted in the same way as they are during court sessions; that is, by twelve [jurors] from the four parishes nearest the place where the offence or felony was discovered. Anyone who is impanelled and summoned during the court sessions, but fails to come, is to be amerced 4d., and the constable of the parish likewise 4d. for his not coming; of which amercements half is to be had by the mayor and chamberlains, for the benefit of the community, and the other half by the sheriffs.

The executions of judgements given before the sheriffs are to be carried out as promptly as is humanly possible, within reason, without any [fee] being taken from anyone for the same.

Henceforth [only] persons of good reputation and sound judgement are to be impanelled on assizes before the justices; and those who have been put on one panel are not to be impanelled again, so that every qualified man take his turn in bearing the burden of responsibility and no-one is constantly impanelled. Neither the sheriffs nor their officers are to demand anything for performing their duty in assembling a jury [to decide] between the parties, other than the fees already established as due their officers.

The sheriff's clerk may take the following as legitimate fees of his office, and nothing else. First, for [recording] an entry of the name of the attorney, 1d.; if he enters an attorney for [both] a man and his wife, 1d. If plaintiff or defendant comes [by attorney] before the court to make an essoin, the clerk shall take 1d. for the entry and warrant of the essoin on the first day; for every subsequent essoin the clerk shall have 1d. For every essoin after law is waged, 1d. For every essoin (whether of plaintiff or defendant) after the first day, 1d. For entering any formal plea, 2d. For [making a copy of] each record extracted from the rolls (regardless of whether it is short or long), 6d. For each entry of a king's protection, 2s. For a recognizance made, or to be made, to the sheriffs, the clerk may take 2d. For an entry of sureties of the peace identified to the bailiffs, 2d. from anyone requesting such surety.

The clerk is to enter into his court roll the entire substance of all cases argued before the sheriffs, always according to due process, as is required to ensure proper judgement be made, without taking anything for that.

The clerk is to draw up a list, as a memorandum for the use of the sheriffs, of all original writs and all returns made to the same, including mention of how they are served and answered.

The sheriffs' sergeants shall take the following as legitimate fees of their office, and nothing more. That is, for a summons or an attachment, 1d. For a distress, 2d. For summoning a jury [to decide] between parties, 2d. For distraining on those jurors to oblige them to come [to court], 2d. For executing [a judgement] in a plea of debt or trespass involving a sum of less than 20s., 2d.; for a sum of 20s. and more, 4d. If the sergeant is found to fail in his duty, the plaintiff is to bring it to the attention of the sheriff, who will remedy the situation; if he does not do so, the plaintiff is to complain to the mayor, who will assign him one of his sergeants to undertake due execution. When judgement has been given and the defendant is unwilling to provide the sergeant with a distress sufficient for the sum recoverable, the sergeant is to seal up the entrance into the dwelling of the convicted party to force him to satisfy the other party for the cost of 13d. for making a complaint, as mentioned above. The sheriffs' clerk and sergeants are to perform their duties properly in all regards, consonant with law and right, taking as their fees what is indicated above, without supporting the quarrel of one party or the other and without oppressing the people, upon penalty of being removed from office and other punishments appropriate for the same.

The sheriffs' sergeants are to be replaced each year after Michaelmas; and, in the event that they fail in their duties during their term, they are to be removed from office.

No man who is summoned for debt or trespass should be imprisoned, if he can find sufficient pledges for answering and standing to the common law.


These reforms relate to the sheriffs' court in York. The date of the ordinances is not known, but they cannot be earlier than about 1400 since the sheriffs came into being when York was given county status in 1396, but the sheriffs' court had evidently been in existence for some years prior to the ordinances. On the other hand, since these reforms seem to be influenced by regulations applicable to the sheriffs' court of London, we may suspect that the York authorities, in the early years of existence of their sheriffs' court, were looking to London for guidance on how best to operate that court.

By this period the legal profession was sufficiently firmly established, and the law sufficiently complex, that it was normal for lawyers to conduct cases for plaintiffs and defendants. This of course put the poorer townspeople at a disadvantage. These reforms reflect the financial obstacles to obtaining justice.

A "user pays" environment existed whereby bureaucratic officials earned part of their income from fees for performing various duties for citizens. This was however subject to abuse, through the charging of extortionate fees.



"men knowledgable in the law"
Likely a reference to the recorder, an office established in York around the time (or shortly before) the grant of county status; the recorder was a professional legal expert retained to give advice to the city on legal and constitutional matters.

"delivered by their peers"
I.e. released upon fellow townsmen standing surety for their appearance at trial, as opposed to a sum of money being put down as bail.

"sureties of the peace"
Guarantors of the peaceable behaviour of one party towards another; the latter, as the one requiring this protection, being liable for payment for an official record being made of the fact and the guarantors' names.

Some types of lawsuits could be, or had to be, initiated by a writ (usually from the king), and an official answer had to be given to the writ to confirm that it had been acted upon, or explain why not.

"a distress sufficient"
I.e. some personal possession assessed at the value of the judgement awarded against the defendant, surrendered by way of pledge for the defendant's payment of the damages.

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Created: August 18, 2001. Last update: November 23, 2002 © Stephen Alsford, 2001-2003