Westminster Courts

Westminster Courts

 

the general designation for the highest courts in medieval Britain (Court of King’s Bench, Court of Common Pleas, and Court of Exchequer).

The term “Westminster Courts” first appeared at the end of the 12th century, when from the single Royal Household a special collegium was set up which tried primarily criminal cases—the so-called Court of King’s Bench. The Court of Common Pleas, which held its sessions permanently at Westminster and tried cases involving disputes over property, was made separate at the beginning of the 13th century and established as the highest court of appeal. The Court of Exchequer tried cases which involved the financial interests of the British Crown. All the Westminster Courts operated on the basis of the so-called common law, and, as a rule, they heard only the most important cases, those which would affect certain interests of the kingdom as a whole. Other cases were tried by county courts, manor (seignorial) courts, ecclesiastical courts, and others.

The strengthening of the royal power was accompanied by an extension of the jurisdiction of the Westminster Courts and at the same time by a contraction of the juridical rights of the feudal aristocracy. Private individuals did not have the right to turn directly to the Westminster Courts; in order to reach these courts, they had to receive permission (a “writ”) from the chancellor. As a result an independent court was fortned in Britain during the 15th century called the Court of Chancery, which tried cases “according to equity” (the so-called law of equity).

In accordance with acts passed in 1873-75 concerning the juridical structure in Great Britain, the Westminster Courts were merged with the Court of Chancery; however, the historically formed division between common law and the law of equity is still a characteristic feature of British law at the present time.

REFERENCES

Petit-Dutaillis, C. Feodal’naia monarkhiia vo Frantsii i Anglii v X-XllI vv. Moscow, 1938.
David, R. Osnovnye pravovye sistemy sovremennosti. Moscow, 1967. Pages 255-56. (Translated from French.)

Z. M. CHERNILOVSKII

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The author uses the gleaning case of 1788 as a case study of how decisions in Westminster courts were reacted to in the country.
His survey is of limited applicability to other courts and times -- indeed, in his concluding remarks he writes that to get at the heart of women's relationship with the law "it is necessary to look beyond the lives of the women who gained entry to large Westminster courts like Requests, to the lives of the many women who did not" (240).
The research base of the book comprises the records of the Middlesex and Westminster courts of quarter sessions which are virtually complete for the era.
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