[From Bullock's History of IoM, 1816]


The Laws-House of Keys-Civil Officers, Juries, &c.

The laws of the Isle of Man are, at this time a constant subject of insular dispute ; by one party,. they are represented as a mass of folly and corruption; by the other, as models of the most perfect jurisprudence. The truth, probably, in this, as in other speculative cases, lies in a medium between the two opinions.

From the time of the revestment, the legislation being protected by that act from all foreign interference, few corrections or alterations have taken place. The ruling powers, divided by internal and personal contention, have suffered the public good to lie dormant. It was enough to insure opposition. That a proposal of amendment originated on the other side, and the rival powers were too equally balanced to afford a triumph to either. Even in the boasted constitution of Great Britain, the watchful eye of legislative wisdom is ever open to discern and correct mistakes or encroachments. how, then, can it be supposed that a code, springing out of feudal customs and an arbitrary government, should require neither amelioration or improvement in the long interval of sixty years; for, if nothing else demanded inquiry in all that time, still the persons employed in the exercise of power, should have been subjected to some inquiry as to their proceedings, and if not the principle, at least the practice, of the legislature demanded investigation.

For a small population thinly scattered over the island, without manufactories or commerce, few laws were requisite, and the memory might be supposed fully competent to record all that was absolutely necessary.

Except the natives, none had any interest or concern in them. In such a community, whose time was wholly occupied in the provision, of mere necessaries, fraud, force, or avarice, had no latitude for disturbing the peace of society; and the trifling differences which sprung up, were willingly referred to the deemster, and settled by the traditionary laws, or, perhaps, more frequently by his supreme will and pleasure, without reference to precedents of any sort.

So little form was used in these appeals. according to the statute-book, the deemster's presence alone, whether in the field or house, walking or riding, constituted a court, and plaintiff meeting his opponent, when this officer was in view, might drag him vi et armis to instant tribunal, and, setting his foot upon his enemy's, there hold him till the cause of quarrel was decided. In such a proceeding, depending more on strength of body or lungs, than questions of right, and wrong, there was certainly more brevity than dignity; but one thing seems to have been well established, and that was the infallibility of the judgment, which could come to such.post-haste decisions, and give them the respectable name of laws.

The office of deemster is of much greater antiquity than the origin of the house of keys, and I conclude, was derived from that of the chief druid, who, in the earliest times, and in all countries, where this sect flourished, combined the rank of priest and magistrate. But the council of wise men is also of druidical institution, they were formerly caled taxi axi, from the word Teag asag, which, according to Dr. Cambell, implies druidism, or elders and senators. In more modern times, this assembly has taken the name of the Keys, which last term, Bishop Wilson ascribes to their knowledge of the jurisprudence of the country, and their unlocking the difficulties thereof at their pleasure.

The numbers of this council were not always twenty-four, they have been referred to as a le. gislative power when only twelve: in one of the old statutes I find it also recorded, that their existence was wholly at the will of the lord, without whose consent, none are to be. This decision, which is stated to have been from the deemsters, in answer to a question of Sir John Stanley second lord of Man, was exceedingly ill received, and though it was recorded in the statute-book, and consequently left there for law, was yet virtually rescinded almost as soon as made. The original form of election is nowhere mentioned, but immediately after the above declaration, such was the ferment it excited, that it was thought prudent on the part of the deputy. governor Byron, to grant the people a share in the election. Accordingly, in 1422, he sent out his precept to the six sheadings, directing them severally to elect six men, out of which six, he chose.four to represent their respective districts, and these made up the twenty-four keys by whose advice and concurrence at that time, several laws and regulations were made.

Why this mode of election has not been preserved, or how the people have lost a right so invaluable as that of choosing their own representatives, is not explained; custom has, however; completely abrogated this privilege, and the practice, now established is, that when a vacancy happens, the remaining members elect two persons one of whom receives the approbation of the governor, and thenceforward retains his seat for life, unless he vacates by voluntary resignation, accepting a place in council, or is expelled by the vote of the majority for some high crime or misdemeanor. What mode would be adopted, if the governor disapproved of both the nominations, is not settled, nor, I believe, has the:case ever occurred. The keys cannot assemble without a summons from the governor, and his mandate. dissolves. the sitting without delay or demur. This body,.when collected, with the lord proprietor, his deputy, and council, constitute a Tynwald court, whose accordance,. is absolutely essential to every legislative act; but the revesting of the island in the crown of Great,Britain, before it can obtain the force of a law, every decree must be confirmed by his Majesty, and ultimately proclaimed in the English and Manx languages before the people at the Tynwald hill.

In the separate meetings of the keys, the number of thirteen is required to form a house. They elect their own speaker, who holds his office for life, and they decide by a majority. The quali:fications of a member are to be of full age, that is, twenty-one years, and to possess landed property in the island. Non-residence, or even being a foreigner, are no impediments to election. Their privileges were of more value in the feudal times than at present ; they being exempt from all duties and services to the lord, and free to kill game in any part of the country. To charge a key with misconduct in the performance of his duty, subjects the offender to a penalty, and loss of ears. This body have always possessed the confidence of the people, and though selfelected, seem never to have abused. their power. The office is attended with much trouble and no emolument; but it is every day rising in consideration, and though, formerly, little respect attended the individuals, at this time, a member, of the keys in the Isle of Man, is regarded by his compatriots as a representative of the Commons is in Great Britain. This increase of consequence takes date since the revestment, and is chiefly founded on the systematic opposition shown by this house to every act or proposition of the Duke of Athol, by which they soothe and augment, aversion of the people to that nobleman, keep alive, often without a shadow of reason, suspicion entertained of his motives and desi

A late writer has observed, "that were the keys once corrupt, they must continue so far ever, the very nature of their constitution being such, that it could never be purified: " but with submission to this author, I think diifferently; coruption in a small legislative body like the one in question, would carry its remedy with it, a few acts of oppression in the improved state of Manx population, would awaken them to an inquiry into their rights, and it is more than probable, would restore the original form of democratic election.

The chief civil officers are the governor and lieutenant-governor, one of them being chancelor ex officio; the two deemsterso or judges, one presiding in the southern, the other in the northern division, (.these must necessarily bee natives) ,the water-bailiff, the high bailiffs, one in each town; the coroners, who are six in number, and preside separately over the six sheadings or districts, into which the island is divided, each having under him a deputy-coroner, or lockman.

The council consists of the following persons: the bishop, the receivers-general, the water-bailiff, attorney-general, clerk of the rolls, and the archdeacon.

All the lands of Man formerly belonged to the lord, and the occupiers could neither sell nor alienate without his consent; they were termed the lord's tenants, and were subject to the paynient of a fine or rental, which was fixed by the setting quest from year to year. This system, had been somewhat relaxed, and the holders came to be regarded as customary tenants, and some of the estates to descend from father to heir for a time, which had given an idea of individual property. But, in 1643, we find an attempt was made by James, Earl of Derby, to seize all the tenures into his own hands, and to effect this. he offered, on a quiet surrender, that he would make a grant to each individual of a lease for three lives, or twenty-one years. This proceeding gave rise to a warm contest, but the dispute remained unsettled till 1703, when it was finally arranged by the interference of Bishop Wilson, and the strenuous representations of the keys. At this time (in 1703), commissioners were appointed, by wlom the lord's dues were incontrovertibly fixed, and the inheritance of their property asured to the people, on the payment of the rents and fines so settled. In 1777, another act was passed by Lord Derby, confirming the first act of settlement. by which.estates on the death of the owner were declared to be the right, of the eldest son, or if no son, eldest daughter. A man cannot devise an estate of inheritance otherwise than in the direct line, but purchased property he may dispose of by will. If he dies intestate, the whole falls to his heirs at law, saving the widow's right, which is half the real and personal estate of her husband, whether he make a will or not. Of the entailed estate, the widow only enjoys her share for life, which afterwards reverts to the heir; but of personal property, she has power to devise one half by will amongst any of her children, even those of a former marriage, and in the life-time of her husband, and these children can claim their respective shares on the death of either parent, as soon as the said children attain the age of fourteen years.

The whole island was formerly divided into six hundred quarter lands, but at present the number is seven hundred and fifty-nine; all other estates appear to be allotments out of, or encroachments upon these. All wrecks belong to the lord, if not claimed within a year and a day. Mines also are his by his prerogative. Game belongs exclusively to the lord, and thelaws were formerly very severe against encroachers, but these have now become nearly obsolete.

Besides the trial by jury in common law and criminal cases, there are various juries impannelled on other occasions. In cases of loss, trespass, or robbery, previous to any other proceedings, juries of inquiry must be summoned, who have power to examine all parties, who may, by possibility, have knowledge of the facts to be inquired into; they may even tender the oath to the suspected person, and their refusal to accept this purgation is considered as presumptive proof of guilt. Upon the verdict of this first jury, subsequent process is founded.

Fodder juries are also a very curious institution. If any person gives notice to the coroner that a gentleman, farmer, or cottager, has a larger stock of cattle than his apparent means can support, he is obliged to summon four men of the same parish, three of whom must be farmers, who are to make inspection what grass or fodder the said persons have provided for their cattle, as well in summer, as in winter, and to make a true report in writing to the next court, and if it should appear that such provision is not sufficient for the cattle, an order is granted to the coroner to sell off so much of the stock as exceeds the quantum of provender, and to deliver the price to the owner. The law even enjoins the said juries to take special care that the needful fodder is actually in present possession, and by no means to admit the evasive excuse of a dependence for supply upon others.


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HTML Transcription © F.Coakley , 2001