Front Page Titles (by Subject) Legal Reform under Edward I. - The Collected Papers of Frederic William Maitland, vol. 2
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Legal Reform under Edward I. - Frederic William Maitland, The Collected Papers of Frederic William Maitland, vol. 2 
The Collected Papers of Frederic William Maitland, ed. H.A.L. Fisher (Cambridge University Press, 1911). 3 Vols. Vol. 2.
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Legal Reform under Edward I.
On the death of Henry III there followed some eighteen years which even at this day may seem to us the most brilliant eighteen years in the whole history of English legislation. At all events, if we are to find a comparable period we must look forward, for five hundred years and more, to the age of the first Reform Bill. Year by year King Edward I in his Parliaments made laws on a grand scale. His statutes will not be in our eyes very lengthy documents; but they are drastic, and they are permanent. They deal with all sorts of matters, public and private, but in particular with those elementary parts of the law of property and the law of civil procedure which English legislators have, as a general rule, been well content to leave alone. Just for this reason they are exceedingly permanent; they become fundamental; elaborate edifices of gloss and comment are reared upon them. To this day, despite all the reforms of the present century, we have to look to them, and the interpretation which has been set upon them, for some of the most elementary principles of our land law. When all has been said that can be said for the explanation of this unique outburst of legislation, it still remains a marvellous thing.
A professional class of English temporal lawyers was just beginning to form itself. We say “of English temporal lawyers,” because for more than a century past there had been “legists” and “decretists” in the land. These legists and decretists constituted a professional class; they held themselves out as willing to plead the causes of those who would pay their fees. They did a large business, for the clergy of the time were extremely litigious. The bishop who was not perennially engaged in interminable disputes with two or three wealthy religious houses was either a very fortunate or a very careless guardian of the rights of his see. And all the roads of ecclesiastical litigation led to Rome. Appeals to the Pope were made at every stage of every cause, and the most famous Italian lawyers were retained as advocates. The King of England, who was often involved in contests about the election of bishops—contests which would sooner or later come before the Roman Curia—kept Italian canonists in his pay. Young Englishmen were sent to Bologna in order that they might learn the law of the Church. The University of Oxford was granting degrees in civil and canon law, the University of Cambridge followed her example. There was no lack of ecclesiastical lawyers; indeed, the wisest and most spiritual of the clergy thought that there were but too many of them, and deplored that theology was neglected in favour of a more lucrative science. And what we might call an ecclesiastical “Bar” had been formed. The canonist who wished to practice in a bishop's court had to satisfy the bishop of his competence, and to take an oath obliging him to practise honestly. The tribunals of the Church knew both the “advocate” (who pleads on behalf of a client), and the “procurator” or “proctor” (who represents his client's person and attends to his cause).
In course of time two groups similar to these grew up round the king's court. We see the “attorney” (who answers to the ecclesiastical proctor) and the “pleader,” “narrator,” or “countor” (who answers to the ecclesiastical advocate). But the formation of these classes of professional lawyers has not been easy. Ancient law does not readily admit that one man can represent another; in particular, it does not readily admit that one man can represent another in litigation. So long as procedure is extremely formal, so long as all depends on the due utterance of sacramental words, it does not seem fair that you should put an expert in your place to say those words for you. My adversary has, as it were, a legal interest in my ignorance or stupidity. If I cannot bring my charge against him in due form, that charge ought to fail; at all events, he cannot justly be called upon to answer another person, some subtle and circumspect pleader, whom I have hired. Thus the right to appoint an attorney who will represent my person in court, and win or lose my cause for me, appears late in the day. It spreads outwards from the king. From of old the king must be represented by others in his numerous suits. This right of his he can confer upon his subjects—at first as an exceptional favour, and afterwards by a general rule. In Henry III's reign this process has gone thus far:—A litigant in the king's court may appoint an attorney to represent him in the particular action in which he is for the time being engaged: he requires no special licence for this; but if a man wishes to appoint prospectively a general attorney, who will represent him in all actions, the right to do this he must buy from the king, and he will not get it except for some good cause. The attorneys of this age are by no means always professional men of business. Probably every free and lawful man may act as the attorney of another; indeed, shocking as this may seem to us, we may, not very unfrequently, find a wife appearing in court as her husband's attorney.
The other “branch of the profession” grows from a different stock. In very old days a litigant is allowed to bring his friends into court, and to take “counsel” with them before he speaks. Early in the twelfth century it is already the peculiar mark of a capital accusation that the accused must answer without “counsel.” Then sometimes one of my friends will be allowed, not merely to prompt me, but even to speak for me. It is already seen that the old requirement of extreme verbal accuracy is working injustice. A man ought to have some opportunity of amending a mere slip of the tongue; and yet old legal principles will not suffer that he should amend the slips of his own tongue. Let another tongue slip for him. Such is the odd compromise between ancient law and modern equity. One great advantage that I gain by putting forward “one of my counsel” to speak for me is that if he blunders—if, for example, he speaks of Roger when he should have spoken of Richard—I shall be able to correct the mistake, for his words will not bind me until I have adopted them. Naturally, however, I choose for this purpose my acutest and most experienced friends. Naturally, also, acute and experienced men are to be found who will gladly be for this purpose my friends or anybody else's friends, if they be paid for their friendliness. As a class of expert pleaders forms itself, the relation between the litigant and those who are “of counsel for him” will be very much changed, but it will not lose all traces of its friendly character. Theoretically one cannot hire another person to plead for one; in other words, counsel cannot sue for his fees.
Seemingly it was in the reign of Henry III that pleaders seeking for employment began to cluster round the king's court. Some of them the king, the busiest of all litigants, kept in his pay; they were his “serjeants”—that is, servants—at law. Under Edward I a process, the details of which are still very obscure, was initiated by the king, which brought these professional pleaders and the professional attorneys under the control of the judges, and began to secure a monopoly of practice to those who had been formally ordained to the ministry of the law. About the same time it is that we begin to read of men climbing from the Bar to the Bench, and about the same time it is that the judges are ceasing to be ecclesiastics. If we look back to Richard I's reign we may see, as the highest temporal court of the realm, a court chiefly composed of ecclesiastics, presided over by an archbishop, who is also Chief Justiciar; he will have at his side two or three bishops, two or three archdeacons, and but two or three laymen. The greatest judges even of Henry III's reign are ecclesiastics, though by this time it has become scandalous for a bishop to do much secular justice. These judges have deserved their appointments, not by pleading for litigants, but by serving as clerks in the Court, the Exchequer, the Chancery. They are professionally learned in the law of the land, but they have acquired their skill rather as the civil servants of the Crown than as the advocates or advisers of private persons; and if they serve the king well on the Bench, they may hope to retire upon bishoprics, or at all events deaneries. But the Church has been trying to withdraw the clergy from this work in the civil courts. Very curious had been the shifts to which ecclesiastics had been put in order to keep themselves technically free of blood-guiltiness. The accused criminal knew what was going to happen when the ecclesiastical president of the court rose but left his lay associates behind him. Hands that dared not write “and the jurors say that he is guilty, and therefore let him be hanged,” would go so far as “and therefore, etc.” Lips that dared not say any worse would venture a sufficiently intelligible “Take him away, and let him have a priest.” However, the Church has her way. The clerks of the court, the Exchequer, the Chancery, will for a very long time be clerks in holy orders; but before the end of Edward I's reign the appointment of an ecclesiastic to be one of the king's justices will be becoming rare. On the whole, we may say that from that time to the present, one remarkable characteristic of our legal system is fixed—all the most important work of the law is done by a very small number of royal justices who have been selected from the body of pleaders practising in the king's courts.
Slowly the “curia” of the Norman reigns had been giving birth to various distinct offices and tribunals. In Edward's day there was a “King's Bench” (a court for criminal causes and other “pleas of the Crown”); a “Common Bench” (a court for actions brought by one subject against another); an Exchequer, which both in a judicial and an administrative way collected the king's revenue and enforced his fiscal rights; a Chancery, which was a universal secretarial bureau, doing all the writing that was done in the king's name. These various departments had many adventures to live through before the day would come when they would once more be absorbed into a High Court of Justice. Of some few of those adventures we shall speak in another place, but must here say two or three words about a matter which gave a distinctive shape to the whole body of our law—a shape that it is even now but slowly losing. Our common law during the later Middle Ages and far on into modern times is in the main a commentary on writs issued out of the king's Chancery. To understand this, we must go back to the twelfth century, to a time when it would have seemed by no means natural that ordinary litigation between ordinary men should come into the king's court. It does not come there without an order from the king. Your adversary could not summon you to meet him in that court; the summons must come from the king. Thus much of the old procedure we still retain in our own time; it will be the king, not your creditor, who will bid you appear in his High Court. But whereas at the present day the formal part of the writ will merely bid you appear in court, and all the information that you will get about the nature of the claim against you will be conveyed to you in the plaintiffs own words or those of his legal advisers, this was not so until very lately. In old times the writ that was drawn up in the king's Chancery and sealed with his great seal told the defendant a good many particulars about the plaintiff's demand. Gradually, as the king began to open the doors of his court to litigants of all kinds, blank forms of the various writs that could be issued were accumulated in the Chancery. We may think of the king as keeping a shop in which writs were sold. Some of them were to be had at fixed prices, or, as we should say nowadays, they could be had as matters of course on the payment of fixed court-fees; for others special bargains had to be made. Then, in course of time, as our Parliamentary constitution took shape, the invention of new writs became rarer and rarer. Men began to see that if the king in his Chancery could devise new remedies by granting new writs, he had in effect a power of creating new rights and making new laws without the concurrence of the estates of the realm. And so it came to be a settled doctrine that though the old formulas might be modified in immaterial particulars to suit new cases as they arose, no new formula could be introduced except by statute. This change had already taken place in Edward I's day. Thenceforward the cycle of writs must be regarded as a closed cycle; no one can bring his cause before the king's courts unless he can bring it within the scope of one of those formulas which the Chancery has in stock and ready for sale. We may argue that if there is no writ there is no remedy and if there is no remedy there is no wrong; and thus the register of writs in the Chancery becomes the test of rights and the measure of law. Then round each writ a great mass of learning collects itself. He who knows what cases can be brought within each formula knows the law of England. The body of law has a skeleton, and that skeleton is the system of writs. Thus our jurisprudence took an exceedingly rigid and permanent shape; it became a commentary on formulas. It could still grow and assimilate new matter, but it could only do this by a process of interpretation which gradually found new, and not very natural, meanings for old phrases. As we shall see hereafter, this process of interpretation was too slow to keep up with the course of social and economic change, and the Chancery had to come to the relief of the courts of law by making itself a court of equity.