The Herald’s stentorian tones carried through the plaza before the Palace of Justice. “Oyez! Oyez! Let all hear and attend the words of Arthol Chapehewer, Eminent Oracle of True Virtue and Protector of the Just, Lawspeaker of Newcourt District! The malefactor Roddin Fallow, lately Journeyman of the Virtuous and Loyal Bretheren of Lysters, Weavers, and Callendars has been adjudicated to be guilty of the crimes of Barratry, Incitement to Disturb the Peace, Bludging of Innocent Travelers, Sale of Dishonest Woolen Goods, and Defamation of the Clergy. For these, and other crimes too numerous to mention, he has been sentenced to be given 10 lashes of the rod… to be immediately followed by branding and transport to the prison colony at Meedsander Island. There he will serve a sentence of no less than five years at hard labor. Thus has spoken the word of the Law!”
Words of the Lawspeaker
The justice system of the Free Cities is based on a system of Justice Courts, each overseen by a “Lawspeaker” appointed by the city’s ruler. The overworked City Courts divide the criminal cases of the city among three or four Municipal Lawspeakers, while the various Regional Magistrates each typically travel a circuit of the small villages under the Free Cities’ authority. Overseeing all of these, the Provincial High Lawspeakers each have final authority over all of the Justice Courts of their regions.
Each of the Lawspeakers has a (rather grandiose) title traditionally associated with their jurisdiction. A typical example would be the Lawspeaker representing Bassage Market and the surrounding Market Quarter: Guelphus Holcannon, Holy and Just Arbiter of Civic Virtue, Lawgiver of the Ambassage Court and its Environs. The Provincial High Lawspeakers are the exception to this pompous practice, generally going by the straightforward title “Provincial High Lawspeaker”.
Because of the workload involved, each of the Provincial High Lawspeakers is assisted by a staff of clerks and lawyers. The Lawspeaker’s Privy Clerk is generally considered to be his de facto deputy, signing for him in cases that do not involve fine points of law.
The Noble Accusers: The Voice of the Wronged
Prosecutorial responsibilities are handled by the court’s “Noble Accuser”. This individual, formally masked to conceal his identity, must be a member of the noble or knightly classes. These posts are invariably filled by the younger sons of the regions’ various noble families, who are expected to serve for a few years as a traditional family obligation. These men generally travel away from their home regions to serve the court, thus helping cement ties between the different regions’ noble houses.
In addition to the “Noble Accusers” that represent the people, any member of the nobility is also free to bring complaints before the courts. These petitions are supposedly reviewed carefully to prevent abuse of the system by unscrupulous nobles, but in practice, any petition for redress brought before a regional magistrate is likely to be given a full trial, while the more independent city courts are likely to summarily dismiss similar claims.
Representation for the Accused: The Merciful Advocates
If the accused is not able to hire an attorney to represent them before the court, by tradition they may be assisted in their defense by a representative of the church, the “Merciful Advocate”. Supported by a tithe levied on the nobility and mercantile classes, these clerical advisors vary widely in ability and legal expertise. While some regard their role as an important part of the legal process, others see their responsibilities as a distraction from more pressing charitable needs and spend as little time as possible dealing with the courts.
The Right to Trial
Trial by a jury of peers is not part of the Free Cities’ legal code; instead, cases are heard and reviewed by one of the lawspeakers, who will decide matters of guilt or innocence, then determine what sort of sentence he deems appropriate. Ordinarily, the lawspeaker will first hear the statement of the Noble Accuser, then any statements offered in defense by the accused and his representatives, and finally the statements of any witnesses. The lawspeaker has the right to refuse any witness if he does not deem their statement to be relevant or credible.
Within the presence of the lawspeaker, any available measures will be used to ensure that the statements given are entirely truthful. The exact measures used vary based on the resources available to the parties in question. Some of the techniques and devices used are fairly innocuous, such as the Lawspeaker Heron’s Tablets of Feldspar, cumbersome stone slabs that supposedly become heavier for those who have deceived others and lighter for those who have been entirely truthful. Other techniques are rather drastic, such as the Fatal Elixir of Caerborne; this dreaded potion is known to be instantly toxic, killing those who utter lies. Those who have recently uttered only truth may fall ill, but will not die. The Truthful Chair of Edenbridge fell somewhere between the two extremes; those seated within it will promptly fall out if they try to deceive anyone.
After hearing all the evidence, the lawspeaker may declare the defendant innocent, guilty, or may declare the matter to be unresolved. When cases are unresolved, the parties involved are given some period of time to acquire more evidence and then the lawspeaker will make his ruling. In persistently unresolved cases, the lawspeaker has the option of resorting to archaic methods of resolving the case, such as trial by ordeal or by ritual combat. A few lawspeakers have been known to flip coins, but this practice is discouraged.
If a defendant is found guilty, he may appeal the decision to the Provincial High Lawspeaker. If a new trial is deemed necessary because of procedural errors, the High Lawspeaker will often rule that the new trial is to be conducted by ordeal. Few have the stomach to face the Ordeal of Iron (Which involves moving red-hot iron bars from a fire to a distant water tub without crying out or dropping them) or the Ordeal of Water (Wherein the defendant is placed in an iron box and immersed for three minutes). These trials are not intended to be unfair; the lore of the Free Cities is replete with examples of innocents who have been aided by spirits of water or fire when they faced their tests. It is believed that the natural spirits of the land will come to aid the pure of heart in their ordeal.
Doom of the Guilty
The punishments meted out by the Courts of the Free Cities have traditionally been harsh in matters of property crime, while providing more lenient sentences for crimes of passion or against members of the lower classes. The main goal of the lawspeakers is to preserve the social order. Once they have decided whether the defendant is guilty, the lawspeaker will deliver the sentence as well. While sentences may be appealed, the practice is discouraged by the Provincial High Lawspeakers, who habitually add to the sentences of those who appeal to them with spurious or incomplete arguments.
Within the Free Cities, property crimes are generally punished more harshly than those involving assault or injury. Minor thefts may involve substantial fines, major thefts, imprisonment or transport to a prison colony. A spectrum of some criminal behaviors in the Free Cities would run approximately as follows (From most to least severe):
Fraudulent Schemes and Artifices
Possession of False Patents of Nobility
Religious Inorthodoxy Resulting in Acts of Violence
Punishments for non-capital crimes vary wildly, but some common penalties run as follows (Generally listed from most to least severe):
Transport for Five to Ten Years,
The Gauntlet (Running down a city street with any bystanders permitted to strike or cuff the prisoner),
Capital crimes within the Free Cities include murder, counterfeiting, rape, kidnapping or serious assault on those of knightly or higher rank, treason, serious assault on an agent of the Crown, necromancy, ensorcelment, demonolatry, and sedition. These crimes are punishable by death, with each magistrate and lawspeaker having their own preferred technique. Those of noble blood can only be executed by beheading, but a variety of unpleasant tortures may be applied first. Those of lesser birth may be executed in a variety of gruesome ways, including drawing and quartering, hanging, and impalement. Most sentences of execution will be scheduled to follow torture.