1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Court Leet

COURT LEET, an English petty criminal court for the punishment of small offences. It has been usual to make a distinction between court baron and court leet[1] as being separate courts, but in the early history of the court leet no such distinction can be drawn. At a very early time the lords of manors exercised or claimed certain jurisdictional franchises. Of these the most important was the “view of frankpledge” and its attendant police jurisdiction. Some time in the later middle ages the court baron when exercising these powers gained the name of leet, and, later, of “court leet.” The quo warranto proceedings of Edward I. established a sharp distinction between the court baron, exercising strictly manorial rights, and the court leet, depending for its jurisdiction upon royal franchise. The court leet was a court of record, and its duty was not only to view the pledges but to present by jury all crimes that might happen within the jurisdiction, and punish the same. The steward of the court acted as judge, presiding wholly in a judicial character, the ministerial acts being executed by the bailiff. The court leet began to decline in the 14th century, being superseded by the more modern courts of the justices, but in many cases courts leet were kept up until nearly the middle of the 19th century. Indeed, it cannot be said that they are now actually extinct, as many still survive for formal purposes, and by s. 40 of the Sheriffs Act 1887 they are expressly kept up.

  1. The history of the word “leet” is very obscure. It appears in Anglo-French documents as lete and in Anglo-Latin as leta. Professor W. W. Skeat has connected it with Old English láetan, to let, which is very doubtful, though this is the origin of the use of the word in such expressions as “two-” “three-way leet,” a place where cross-roads meet. The New English Dictionary suggests a connexion with “lathe,” a term which survives as a division of the county of Kent, containing several “hundreds.” This is of Old Norwegian origin, and seems to have meant “landed possessions.” There is also another Old Norwegian léith, a court or judicial assembly, and modern Danish has laegd, a division of the country for military purposes. J. H. Round (Feudal England, p. 101) points out that the Suffolk hundred was divided for assessment into equal blocks called “leets” (see further F. W. Maitland, Select Pleas in Manorial Courts, Selden Soc. Publications I. lxxiii-lxxvi). “Leet” is also used, chiefly in Scotland, for a list of persons nominated for election to an office. This is, apparently, a shortened form of the French élite, elected.