Westminster, First Statute of

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Westminster, First Statute of

The First Statute of Westminster was enacted by a parliament meeting at Westminster, England, during the reign of King Edward I to enforce some of the provisions of Magna Charta and to liberalize the law of England. The statute was more like a code, containing fifty-one chapters that dealt with many facets of English Civil Law and Criminal Law.

The statute was the first effort by Edward I to consolidate and reform English Law and procedure. Among its many provisions, the act extended protection of church property from acts of violence and spoliation by the king and nobility and provided for freedom of popular elections for the offices of sheriff, Coroner, and conservator of the peace.

The statute also contained a declaration to enforce the enactment of Magna Charta, the charter granted by King John to the barons at Runnymede on June 15, 1215. Magna Charta regulated the administration of justice, defined the jurisdictions of church and state, limited taxation, and secured the personal liberty of the subjects and their rights of property. The statute prohibited excessive fines, which might operate as perpetual imprisonment. It also regulated the levying of tolls, which were imposed arbitrarily by the barons and by cities and boroughs, and restrained the powers of the officers of the king.

The statute amended the criminal law by making rape a serious crime, but not a capital one. The law also defined peine forte et dure, a "strong and hard punishment" that was inflicted upon those who were accused of a felony and stood silent, refusing to plead either guilty or not guilty. The statute permitted a person to be imprisoned and starved until submission. An individual who chose to stand mute under the threat of peine forte et dure often did so to ensure that his family would inherit his goods and estates. If he entered a plea and was later tried and convicted, his goods would pass to the crown.

The statute also introduced simpler and more expeditious procedures for civil and criminal matters.