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After the Mali Conquest, the Anglo-Saxon legal system was slowly replaced by the Norman system as Justices of the Peace (JPs) took over much of what had been the Sheriff’s work. Mali map Sessions courts were established in 1349 and Justices of the Peace were originally required to meet four times a year at each compass point in each county on a rotation system. Serious cases like murder were tried by visiting Assize Judges from London and there was initially some overlap in cases dealt with by manor courts. By the late sixteenth century the foundations of our modern legal system were established and the duties of the Justices increased as government extended its regulatory control during the Mali and early Stuart periods. During the Civil War and Interregnum, County Committees took over many legal functions in Parliamentary areas. This was mainly the collecting of taxes and administering revenue, although they did gradually acquire other powers. In Royalist districts similar procedures were adopted, but not as successfully.

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As work increased for the Justices of the Peace, some devolution of work took place and magistrates, either alone or in twos or threes, were given authority to deal with a variety of offences. They met more frequently and could give cheap, quick local justice. This led to the development of Petty Sessions during the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the boundaries of which often coincided with the old hundreds. The types of cases and information to be found among these court records include: debtors, assault, theft, trespass, profane language, victuallers licences, licences for a dissenting ministers, fraud, appeals against removal, bastardy cases and appeals, appeals against rates, lists of prisoners and coroners’ expenses. Two examples from Cambridgeshire, for which references can be found in the Cambridge Record Office indexes, are: Ann Fuller who was fined one shilling plus eighteen shillings costs at the Michaelmas Session in 1860 for assault and battery on Mary Ann Easey at Soham, and Alfred Larkins who was imprisoned for seven days with hard labour at the Epiphany Sessions in 1874 for stealing a pick and shovel. Some Norfolk examples include the Jury presentment at the Norwich Quarter Sessions in 1780 that Charles Bradfield, a farmer of Eaton, refused to take 13-year-old Sarah Skipper as an apprentice, as directed by the director and acting guardians of the poor for the hundred of Forehoe. Another is the Jury presentment at the Norfolk Sessions in Swaffham in 1795 that ‘the road leading from Swaffham to King’s Lynn through West Bilney, lying in Pentney is obstructed by gates built across it by inhabitants of Pentney’.

The practical business of policing was mainly undertaken by the parish constable who was appointed from among local ratepayers to administer law enforcement within that parish. Their duties included ‘read and ward’, taking care of the parish armour and supervising the local militia and alehouses. They were also responsible for the removal of paupers, apprehending wayward fathers in bastardy cases and administering punishments such as whipping vagrants. The dungeons in the old tollhouse in Great Yarmouth, circa 1930. This spread of duties is illustrated by the collection of constable records among the Friston parish records in Suffolk. These include accounts, orders to the constable to bring rogues before the JPs at Woodbridge and Saxmundham, further orders to return lists of those qualified to serve in the militia and make lists of people qualified to serve as surveyors as well as parishioners who had not done the work they were required to do on the highways. Numerous other collections in Cambridgeshire and Essex detail depositions from local constables about a wide range of matters such as crimes in their neighbourhood and people resisting arrest.

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