The Court Leet is the most ancient form of local criminal court. In the medieval period its jurisdiction covered the overseeing of standards in such matters as food and drink, weights and measures, agriculture and civic maters. It could investigate, judge and punish minor criminal cases such as common nuisances, encroachment on public lands, highways, and disturbances of the peace. It had powers to investigate more serious crimes, but no power to punish; it could only refer such cases to the Quarter Sessions or the Assizes.

The court was presided over by the mayor who sat with the aldermen and councillors of the town. Presentments were made to them by the jurors, supposedly twelve in number, but in practice not usually less than fifteen. The records of the Southampton Court Leet from 1550 to the present day are extant. Earlier records are referred to in other documents, but no longer survive. Court Leets declined as they were replaced by other courts, but many survived into the 19th century. Southampton’s is one of a handful that still operate.

Southampton’s court met once a year on the third Tuesday after Easter Tuesday. It originally met on Cut-thorn mound on the Common, but was moved to the Guildhall above the Bargate in 1616 and then on to the Audit House in 1856 where it continued to be held until the Law Court block of the Civic Centre was built in 1934.

It is now held in the Council Chamber in the Civic Centre on the first Tuesday after Michaelmas. Citizens make presentments and the court votes on whether to lodge the plea to the city council. Afterwards, they preside over the 'Beating the Bounds' ceremony, the ancient practice of clearing the markers of the town boundaries.


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Further reading:

History of Southampton, by Rev. J. S. Davies, p233-237. (HS/h)
History of Southampton Vol 1, by A. Temple Patterson, p123-24. (HS/h)
Court Leet Records (Southampton Record Series 4 Volumes, by F. J. C. Hearnshaw. (HS/l)


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