The Duchy of Lancaster appointed magistrates in the County Palatine for over 650 years. Until 31 March 2005, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, acting on behalf of the Sovereign, had the responsiblity for appointing magistrates (Justices of the Peace) in Lancashire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside.
This former arrangement dated back to 1351, when the county of Lancashire was raised by King Edward III to the status of County Palatine. This gave the new Duke of Lancaster, Henry Grosmont, Sovereign rights in Lancashire in the spheres of justice and administration.
Responsibility for the law courts in Lancashire passed to the Duke. Henry began appointing his own Justices for pleas of the Crown and all other common law pleas, with execution to be made by his writs and his ministers in the county.
After 1399, the Duchy Council maintained a close interest in supervising Justices of the Peace. Lancashire had a reputation for lawlessness throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; it was claimed that the lawlessness was partly due to the County Palatine’s immunity from Crown jurisdiction.
During the Reformation, the large numbers of recusant Roman Catholics in Lancashire (families who had not become Protestant) attracted particular anxiety. It was noted in a Commission during 1586 that even the Justices of the Peace could not be solidly relied upon in supporting the new religion.
By the seventeenth century, Justices of the Peace took their orders, as in other counties, from central government, but commissions and writs had to pass under the seal of the County Palatine.
Reforms were made during the following centuries to protect the appointment of Justices of the Peace from political abuse, favouritism and discrimination. A commissioners’ report in 1948 reported that they were satisfied that the duties of Justices in the County Palatine were performed as well as in the rest of the country. They recommended that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster should continue to be the minister responsible for Justices in Lancashire, even though he was not himself a judge.
Under the Courts Act 2003 the Duchy of Lancaster’s responsibility for appointing magistrates ended on 31 March 2005 and responsibility for the appointment of magistrates now rests with the Ministry of Justice.
Further information on the Ministry of Justice may be found at www.justice.gov.uk