Social Status of Litigants in the Court of Common Pleas: 1465

Not much is known about the status orientation of litigation. The status/occupation of defendants is available for litigation in the fifteenth century and after, but not often or regularly for plaintiffs unless they were gentry or higher. Clearly men who were yeomen or below made up by far the greater part of those who were defendants. It may be inferred that they also constituted more than half of plaintiffs, although one should not assume such regularity with the scribes as to make that conclusion confident. Even if that conclusion holds (I think it does), until an analysis is done case by case, we do not know how much litigation was basically between people of similar standing, against people of lower standing, or against people of higher standing. The issue is critical for a social evaluation of the function of law in society. The whole subject, however, is unlikely to be solved soon. Many trespassory actions were precipitated by people making an entry on land precisely to generate the litigation, so that the initiator of the dispute (the "social plaintiff") was actually the legal defendant. One cannot ascertain this relationship, however, unless the case is pleaded, and often not even then. Debt situations are easier, but litigation against social superiors in debt for wages for services rendered would not be surprising or revealing.

The primary conclusion here is that the common law was relevant to a very broad sector of society, although we do not yet know whether its primary role on the civil side was enforcement of order (much downward litigation, as with Statute of Laborers prosecutions) or social equality (much upward litigation, as with enforcement of rights against a manorial lord) or, more likely, some complex mixture.

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