The origin of the Court Leet is lost in the mists of antiquity. Very few such courts survive in England , but in Hampshire, the heart of old Wessex, two still function, one at Stockbridge and the Court Leet of Southampton.
Even the derivation of the word "leet" is uncertain. One theory is that it comes from the Anglo-Saxon "Laeth" denoting a geographical division of the country.
In Southampton the Court Leet is now held on the first Tuesday after Michaelmas. Prior to the Court the "Beating of the Bounds" takes place. In the old days the Mayor, Sheriff, Bailiffs and Burgesses rode in full state on horseback. That duty performed they assembled at the Cutted Thorn or Cutthorn as it is now known, a flat-topped tree-encircled mound on the northern boundary of The Common where it abuts on to Burgess Road, on the east side of The Avenue. From twelve to twenty-four, or even more, Jurors were summoned to the Court which was presided over by the Town Clerk (now the Solicitor to the Council) as Steward of the Court and the Sheriff as Foreman of the Grand jury, the latter calling for and receiving presentments of matters requiring amendment in the Town.
The Court Leet had the right to enquire into felonies, according to the charge read by the Steward of the Court, but no power to punish and it could only refer cases to the Quarter Sessions or to the Assizes. But it had the right of judging and punishing other cases of law-breaking such as common nuisances, encroachment on public lands, and the gathering together of unlawful assemblies or other acts calculated to disturb the public peace. The Court also supervised trade regulations, weights and measures, the prices and quality of goods and the infringement of the laws of the market.
In 1616, however, the more important citizens (who made up the Grand Jury) petitioned that Court Leet be transferred to the old Guildhall above the Bargate. With a few exceptions (because of protests from the ordinary folk who had lost their day out by the change) it was held there from that date until 1856. Then it was transferred to the Audit House where it continued to be held until 1934 when it moved to the Civic Centre.
Nowadays, the Court Leet still provides a valuable opportunity for Citizens to air their grievances in front of a Jury of Alderman, past City Councillors (including past Mayors and Sheriffs) and representatives of local organisations. Their complaints are forwarded to the City Council's Cabinet for a formal response and decision.
The next Court Leet is to be held on Tuesday 1 October 2013