By God and the Country: A Thousand Years of Criminal Justice in East Sussex

Wednesday 8th July 2015 by Christopher Whittick, East Sussex Records Office

PWOur speaker took us back to a period when responsibility for the prosecution of crime rested with the victim or victim’s family: a procedure based on the Saxon ‘blood-feud’, in which monetary value applied to all crimes. In Lewes in 1086 the price of ‘bloodshed’ was seven shillings and fourpence. Hanging was the penalty for all unmendable crimes, even for inability to pay.

Criminal prosecution by other than the parties to crime, began after the Norman Conquest. Felonies—actions leading to forfeiture of felons’ property to their lord was an essential part of feudalism. Death inflicted by the State, or entitled private persons, was the only sentence. Hanging eventually superseded the use of the guillotine, throwing over the cliff, hanging, drawing and quartering and all other forms of execution.

In the C12th, the concept emerged that crime, as well as being attacks on individuals, was an affront to society. Perhaps the most momentous development during Henry II’s reign was the law ‘Assize of Clarendon’ of 1166, by which the principle of jury-inquest was applied nationally. This Assize required four lawful men from every ‘Township’, with twelve from every ‘Hundred’, to denounce all malefactors within their jurisdictions. These denunciations became known as indictments.

‘Ordeal’, whether by water or fire, remained the normal proof of guilt until 1215 when the Lateran Council forbade the Clergy to participate in physical punishments. Throughout the C13th crime in the counties was dealt with by itinerant justices: national figures from the central administration, or by local men – ‘keepers of the peace’. In 1361, a statute required that in each county a nobleman, three or four most worthy men and others learned in the law, should serve as JPs.

By the end of the C15th, the system for the disposal of criminal cases in the counties had assumed the form that persisted until the Courts Act 1971. Serious crime was dealt with twice a year at the Sussex Assizes.  A display of the law’s majesty as the judges arrived was intended to impress.

Local JPs dealt with crimes of middling nature, the administration of the county, pre-trial investigations and punishment for minor offences, sitting  either at home or in regular Petty Sessions, known as Magistrates’ or Police Courts.

There were problems. Gaol fever was rampant, affecting both dock and bench. Assembling prisoners, jurors, prosecutors, witnesses and lawyers in a world of inadequate postal services was difficult. Difficulties in the court itself arose from the use of Latin.

By 1830, Sussex, excluding the Cinque Ports, had 11 Petty Sessions divisions: the seats of senior JPs. With the formation in 1889 of two County Councils, the Sessions’ administrative role ceased.