Courts in Colonial Virginia
Duties of the Local Courts
Local Court Procedures and Personnel
Court Architecture & Democracy
Order in the Court Web Adventure
18th C. Legal Terms
Mock Trial of Abigail Briggs
Order in the Court Teacher Guide
Other Classroom Activities
To ensure that colonial Virginia functioned as a law-based society, leaders had to convince the people that the court had the authority to enforce the law. Roles of the courts were clearly defined and the people of the community played a part in them. Serious cases went to the General Court which was held at the capitol and run by the kings governor and Legislative Council. The less important or lower court heard less serious cases. For example, the County or Hustings Courts could not hear cases of "Life and Limb" [murder] or felonies [serious crimes]. The County Courts also heard lawsuits brought up by less important people such as servants, yeomen planters, and sometimes even Indians.
Here is a list of duties assigned to the Hustings Court in Colonial Williamsburg. Note how many of the tasks would be handled by other government agencies today.
- Hear all civil suits brought before it. (Suits involving large sums of money or other important matters could be taken directly to the General Court.)
- Judge criminal cases except those where penalties could be loss of life or member [part of the body].
- In serious criminal cases act as if it was a grand jury deciding on whether to indict the alleged offender, and if indicted, bond him and the witnesses to appear.
- Admit wills to probate, grant estate administrators, and appoint appraisers.
- Appoint guardians for orphans. Bind out orphans of small estate [make them indentured servants].
- Compel accounting by executors, administrators, and guardians.
- Order the recording of deeds after hearing acknowledgments by grantors or confirmation of validity by witnesses.
- Grant ordinary licenses and prescribe liquor prices.
- Appoint juries to recommend routes for requested new roads or sites for new watermills and act on the requests.
- Appoint "surveyors" to oversee the maintenance of a road. Contract for the building of "gaols" [jails], courthouses, bridges, etc.
- Recommend persons to the Governor for appointment as justices, sheriff, militia officers, tax commissioners, and take their oaths of office.
- Appoint deputy sheriffs, constables, and patrolmen. Grant licenses to attorneys to practice before the bar of the county.
The heavy administrative role of the local court to record and administer debts and issue licenses and contracts meant that every person in a community had required dealings with the court and a stake in the fairness of its operation.