[From Bullock's History of IoM, 1816]
The various Courts of Law and Proceedings in them.
THE courts, besides the House of Keys, are the Court of Chancery, the Court of general Gaol Delivery, the Court of Exchequer, the common Law Court, the two Deemsters' Courts, the Court of Admiralty, and the courts of the High Bailiffs, at the four towns ; but the courts possessing appellative jurisdiction, are the- twenty-four Keys, the Staff of Government, and lastly, the King in Council.
For the more convenient administration of justice, the island is divided into two districts, with a deemster or judge for each : but the other courts are usually held at Castle Rushen, except the common law courts. These districts are subdivided into six sheadings, over each of which a governor or coroner is appointed with very extensive powers.
By the act of revestment all the insular courts remained untouched, except that lord's judicial power was transferred to the king of England. In all the proceedings the parties are at liberty to plead their own cause and this practice universally prevailed till of late years, when a bench of advocates have been formed, who are now genenerally employ in all matters of importance.
The court of chancery. in which the governor presides as chancellor, assisted by the two deemsters, the clerk of the rolls, and water baliff, takes cognizance of all causes both of law and equity, and has power to judge without the intervention of a jury. For the purpose of prosecuting a suit on the law side of this court, a common action is entered at the rolls office, when the defendant must be charged by the coroner three days before the sitting, which is usually held the first Thursday in every month. Should the person summoned neclect to appear, the same course is followed at three successive courts, and at the fourth the cause is heard and determined on the oath of the complainant.- Under an affidavit of debt, a native who can be proved to intend leaving the island, or a stranger without such proof, may be imprisoned for the sum sworn to, however small, and his effects instantly arrested and held over by the constable to answer the demand and costs,. after the decree these effects, according to law, whether much or little, are to be sold by public auction, and first paying one year's rent, tooether with the servants wages if due, the,residue is applied to discharge the debt, and the surplus may be restored to the debtor. If the sum arising from the sale is not equal to these claims, it is nevertheless applied to their liquidation as far as it will go, and the person is still retained in prison for the deficiency, unless he be a native, who can only be coerced to the extent of his effects. On this subject, we shall reserve our remarks for the present.
The court of general gaol delivery is one of peculiar importance, at which all the constituted authorities assist. For the trial of any crime, which by the law of the land is deemed capital, the proceedings are remarkable for the humanity with which they are conducted towards the offender, whoo contrary to the practice in England, is allowed council on his behalf; the constitution enjoins that four good men out of each parish shall be summoned, amounting in numher to sixty-eight from these a jury of twelve are impannelled: the accused having a privilege to challenge fifty-four: the prosecution is conducted by the attorney-general, and when the pleadings are ended, and the iury have agreed on their verdict, a very curious ceremony ensues. The deemster demands of the foreman, if he that ministers at the altar may continue to sit? If the reply be in the negative, it is understood to be the forerunner of a sentence of death, and the bishop with his clergy immediately retire after conviction, the senior deemster passes judgment, but the execution cannot take place until his Majesty's pleasure be known. Lesser penalties may be inflicted on the authority of the governor. It is remarkable, -and either bespeaks great morality in the people, or, laxity in the administration of the laws, that since the revestment in 1765, only two capital convictions have taken place in the island.
The court of common law is in part like that of chancery, the same judges preside, but in this the causes are decided by a jury. To this court also the trespass juries, and juries of inquest make their return. It is held once in three months, alternately in each of the two districts northern and southern ; from this court appeal lies to the keys.
The court of exchequer has superintedent authority in all cases of revenue, as also for the recovery of fines and forfeittires to the crown, and matters relative to customs and excise; it also determines the. rights of tithes, which, previous to the act of 1777, had been cognizable only in the ecclesiastical court.
The deemstet.'s court is the most popular and the one most frequently resorted to, being held every week. The judge in this court, by his sole authority, determines in cases of trespass, slander, assault, battery, debts, and contracts, but there lies an appeal from his judgment to the staff of government. The plaintiff, who seeks redress before the deemster, must apply to that judge for a summons, which being served on the defendant by the coroner, if the party so charged, or any of the witnesses, neglect to appear at the ensuing court, they incur a presentment for contempt, and are liable to be brought up by a constable at the next sitting, or in case of repeated evasion, they may be imprisoned till the cause is heard. Formerly the deemster's summons, which was then, and still is called a token, consisted only of a piece of blue slate, on which two letters of his name were engraven, or more properly speaking, scratched with any rude instrument that offered, and to falsify this token, the law declared to be penal.
When the parties appear in court the deemster hears the pleadings on both sides, and as small matters are seldom conducted by an advocate, it often happens that decorum is altogether forgotten in the heat of contention, and a spectator, unacquainted with the practice of these courts, would incline to think he was in a market, where the contending parties were disputing about their commodities before an umpire, rather than in a court of justice, and in the presence a supreme judge.
After a hearing, the deemster gives judgment in writing, which is delivered to the coroner, who puts it in force. In actions of battery the law is very curious. A person striking or wounding another is liable to a fine of ten shillings, besides charges of cure; but he who provokes such blows by abusive language, "causing,or that might cause, such battery or wounding," incurs a penalty of thirteen shillings and fourpence besides suffering imprisonment.*1
The water bailiff, or judge of the court of admiralty, has ever been regarded as an officer of great importance; he is one of the council, and takes cognizance of all maritime concerns and offences committed within three leagues of the shore.
The high bailiffs in the several towns are of modern institution, they are, a kind of police officers, being conservators of the peace, and have jurisdiction in matters of debt under forty shillings. These hold their office during the governor's pleasure.
The coroners have a power in many respects' analogous to English sheriffs; the power of each expires with the year, but during its existence is very extensive; he is a ministerial as well as a peace officer, and also takes inquests, in cases of sudden or violent deaths. In his ministerial capacity he is to summon juries, and execute process issuing from the different courts, and after the legal forms are complied with he has power to sell such goods as he has arrested.
With respect to the ecclesiastical jurisdiction, the Bishop of Man, besides his spiritual rank, is sole baron of the isle ; he has a seat in the council, the court of chancery, and exchequer. All ecclesiastical affairs, relative to wills, administrations, debts and credits of deceased persons; minors' effects and alimony are heard and determined, either by his lordship in person, or by his vicars-general, who are in the nature of chancellors to the bishop. The proceedings in the spiritual courts, where not otherwise noticed by the local laws, are regulated in conformity to those of England; the archdeacon is the second spiritual officer in the island, and has, in all inferior cases, alternate jurisdiction with the bishop; he holds his court either in person or by his official: the usual appeal, in all matters purely spiritual, lies from the insular court to their metropolitan, the archbishop of York. but in temporal and civil affairs to the staff of government.
Marriages may be contracted by banns or licence: aliens cannot marry till they have been three months resident in the island. Marriage is, in fact, considered here as an act of partnership, giving. no exclusive right to property. A man who marries an heiress, enjoys only one half of her lands during his life; if she dies without children, and he continues unmarried, the same law invests the female with equal rights as to property of inheritance during her widowhood. but of his acquired possessions, she has power even during his life to devise one-half to any child of her own, and this will is in force immediately on her decease. No man or woman, being married, can sell or lease but by mutual consent. If a man marries a second wife, having issue by his first, the second only takes one-fourth part of his estate of inheritance, nor can any will or deed of gift invalidate these singular rights, except by the joint act of both parties, yet the husband incurs the same liability respecting his wife's debts as in England.
In the Isle of Man, children arrive at the age of majority when they have completed their fourteenth year, so far as relates to personal property, to which they then become entitled, and are also liable to debts thenceforward contracted by them; but must attain the age of twenty-one before they can enter in possession of landed estates, or make any disposition by way of sale.
A marriage contracted between the parties, within three years of the birth of a child, renders such child legitimate, if the character of the female is otherwise unimpeached. A woman convicted of adultery loses her wife's or widow's right, and is entitled only to such alimony as the ecclesiastical court thinks proper to allow.
Executors may proceed in the ecclesiastical court for the immediate recovery of debts due, to deceased persons, and their decree having once passed, and the order given out, subjects the defendant to instant imprisonment, till satisfaction is made by payment in full; on the other hand, no claim can be enforced against the effects of the dead under a year and a day; or if they had any money transactions out of the island, the law allows to the heirs or executors the extended term of three years for the settlement of whole concerns.
The mode formerly adopted for making proof of a demand for or against the estate of the defunct, was very curious: the person charging or denying such debt was obliged to visit the grave of the deceased, with two witnesses, and stretching himself at length on the same, with an a bible on his breast., he there pronounced a solemn oath, which, in the absence of other proofs, was accepted as positive confirmation or denial of the matter in dispute; but this process was abolished by Bishop Barrow.
As to the penal laws their defects being admitted, and the code at this time under the actual consideration of the legislature for the express purpose of amendment and elucidation, it would be useless to enlarge on their present state.; and it is to be hoped, when the promised alterations do take place, a stricter police will be established, and the impunity now afforded to crimes, for want of definition in the existing power, will no longer remain a just subject of complaint.*2
There is; one particular, which seems to have escaped observation, and yet calls imperiously for attention, which is, the manner of conducting coroner's inquests, in cases of sudden deaths, and the slovenly style in which they proceed when summoned.
To prove that this charge is not unfounded, I shall select two anecdotes from the number that have fallen under my observation. In one case, the captain of a Norwegian vessel. after receiving a considerable sum of money, was found dead without any previous illness, the cause assigned was intoxication, but attended by circumstances so suspicious as at any rate to demand a strict investigation; great part of his money had disappeared, and the body immediately after death turned entirely black, and exhibited many symptoms inducing a belief that poison had been administered; on this matter no inquiry took place, or if any, certainly not with the assistance of any medical man. The other affair was yet more extraordinary. A man wholly unknown being found in the river apparently drowned, inquest was taken, and the verdict to this effect being given, he was consigned to the care undertaker, when, behold, on stripping it appeared that his throat had been cut ,neckcloth replaced, all which, with pc froid, the foreman of the jury declare no doubt the deceased had done himself, there was no need to revise the former decision, on account of these new circumstances!
*1 This penalty is now increased.-See Penal Code,
*2 For the new Penal Statutes, see Appendix, 8.