Legal Magazine

Monday Morning Hearsay: The Plantagenet People’s Court

Posted on the 04 February 2013 by Jslubinski @jslubinski

Since the skeletal remains found last year under a parking lot in Leicester have been confirmed as those of Richard III, England will finally properly lay to rest its last Plantagenet king.  richardiii

Most know him as Shakespeare portrayed him: cruel hunchback and serial murderer.  The remains confirm that Richard suffered from scoliosis, and given the thinking of the time, it is not hard to imagine how the truth about his reign might have been warped by prejudice; and it almost certainly was rewritten by the Tudors who, led by the man who became Henry VII, defeated and killed Richard at Bosworth Field.  That the young sons of Edward IV, Richard’s brother and predecessor, were never seen again after they came into Richard’s care is troubling, although there is no evidence they were actually murdered.  And as many have pointed out, Richard was not the first and certainly was not the last king to consolidate his power by eliminating his rivals.  Richard III would be the last English king to die in battle, and even according to Henry VII, he died fighting honorably and bravely.

In certain ways Richard III was a champion of the common man.  He instituted one of the earliest People’s Courts, the Court of Requests, an equity court to which the poor could apply for redress of wrongs.  The costs to prosecute a case in the Court of Requests were low and decisions were handed down quickly.  Evidentiary requirements were relaxed so that expensive legal representation was unnecessary.  The Court of Requests became immensely popular, so much so that the common law courts resented it.  The common law courts eventually shut it down, primarily by issuing writs of habeas corpus for men imprisoned by the Court of Requests.

Richard also introduced bail: beginning in 1484, a person charged with a felony could offer a sum of money or a piece of property to be held by the court, in exchange for which the person would remain free unless and until he was convicted.  This represented a huge step forward in English jurisprudence since it bolstered the most central criminal law premise: that a person is innocent until proven guilty.  Permitting a person charged with a crime to remain free pending conviction meant that he could consult with his lawyers, manage his affairs, protect his property, and prepare his defense.

These advances in legal procedure and fundamental fairness lead me to think that Richard has been unfairly maligned, and that perhaps a lifetime of being despised for a physical deformity over which he had no control made him sympathetic to the needs of outcasts and people of limited means.  Which is why I like this line so much, from Shakespeare’s Richard III, because what it seems to be saying about the king on first read is not, in fact, what it is saying at all:

No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity.
But I know none, and therefore am no beast.


Richard III, Act 1, Scene 2.


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