Nullus vicecomes, constabularius, coronatores, vel alii ballivi nostri, teneant placita coronae nostrae.
No sheriff[s], constable[s], coroners or other of our bailiffs are to hold the pleas of our crown.
The term `pleas of the crown’ covered a number of royal rights, but fundamental to them was the king’s jurisdiction over serious crimes (homicide, arson, rape etc.), and it was with this that Clause 24 was primarily concerned. In the period immediately after the Norman Conquest such crimes had usually been dealt with in the county court, where the sheriff presided, but the twelfth century saw a steady reduction in his powers. Justice was increasingly administered by professionals appointed from Westminster, and new controls were created, notably the office of coroner, to increase efficiency and to prevent corruption, with its attendant loss of revenue by the king, on the part of sheriffs and their subordinates. But there were still areas of uncertainty, particularly where theft was concerned, and sheriffs could still sometimes exercise jurisdiction over matters from which they had usually come to be excluded. In the last years of John’s reign, when the judicial system came under increasingly heavy pressure, their importance as royal agents not only allowed them to exploit their powers at the expense of those they governed, in ways which included dealing with matters arising from pleas of the crown, but they were also employed by the king as justices in judicial visitations which were largely money-raising enterprises. The result was a blanket prohibition on the employment of sheriffs, and all other local officials, in the hearing of crown pleas, one which was maintained thereafter.
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