High, middle and low justice  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

High, middle and low justices are notions dating from Western feudalism to indicate descending degrees of judiciary power to administer justice by the maximal punishment the holders could inflict upon their subjects and other dependents.


Pyramid of feudal justice

Although the terms high and low suggest a strict subordination, this was not quite the case; a case could often be brought in any of several courts, with the principle of "prevention" (in the etymological sense of Latin praevenire, "to come before") granting jurisdiction to the court in which the case was first filed or otherwise brought.

As a rule, each court administered justice in general (the penal was generally not separate from civil and other types of justice, while certain matters were separated such as Canon law), as far as the matter was not reserved for a higher court or by virtue of some privilegium fori (e.g. clerics to be judged by other clergy, in canon courts). In addition to trials (between parties or against an accused), the notion of justice also included voluntary justice, which is really the official recording of deeds (unilateral or between parties) such as matrimony, testament, grants, et cetera.

A right of appeal was not automatically available, only when explicitly established, and if so not always to a court of the superior political level and/or a higher degree of our trio. In fact, feudal justice was a labyrinth of specific customs and rules in nearly endless variation, not governed by any clear legal logic, and subject to significant historical evolution in time, though the largely customary law tended by nature to be quite conservative. In judicial matters — as in all spheres of life — feudal society did not see uniformity as either possible or necessarily desirable, each town and region having its own customs and ways of doing things, and resented attempts to interfere with them.

While the right of justice is held by many 'unique' courts, relatively strong states make it a pillar of their absolutist (re)emergence to establish numerous courts to administer justice in their name in different territorial circumscriptions, such as the royal (high) sheriffs in England, and/or to impose an appeal (at least unifying the law as such) to a royal court, as to the various French provincial parlements.

High justice

This is the highest penal authority, including capital punishment, as held by a sovereign — the sword of justice and hand of justice are regalia that symbolize it. [[File:Hand of justice Louvre MS85.jpg|thumb|150px|Hand of justice Louvre]]

Often it is proudly displayed, in the form of relevant status symbols. Thus permanent gallows are often erected in prominent public places; the very word for them in French, potence, is derived from the Latin “potentia” meaning 'power'.

High justice is held by all states and the highest vassals in the European type of feudal society, but may also be acquired by other authorities as part of a high degree of legal autonomy, such as certain cities; which in time often obtained other high privileges originally reserved for high nobility and sometimes high clergy. Other such privileges could include a seat in a diet or a similar feudal representative assembly, before the third estate as such even aspired to such 'parliamentary' representation, or the right to mint coins. These privileges indicating its so-called liberty was an 'equal' enclave in the territorial jurisdiction of the neighboring feudal (temporal or ecclesiastical) Lord, sometimes even extending rather like a polis in Antiquity.

Jus gladii

In Latin jus (ius) gladii literally means "the right of the sword", referring to the legal authority of an individual or group to execute someone for a capital offense, i.e. high justice.

According to the New Testament account of the death of Jesus, the Jewish leaders had the right to imprison someone within their territory, but only the Roman rulers were permitted to claim jus gladii. Therefore, Jesus had to be brought up for judgment before the Romans in order for an execution to be legal.

See also: Blutgericht

Middle justice

This intermediate level is the least well defined, and sometimes absent in a specific jurisdiction.

Low justice

This is the level of 'day-to-day' justice, minor cases generally settled by limited fines or light corporal punishment. It is always included in the jurisdiction of the High and Middle Justiciarians, but also by many petty authorities, including many domanial proprietors, who sat in justice over the serfs, tenants, et cetera on their land, or rather assign a steward or the likes to do so for him, or allow a form of jury trial.

See also

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