Power to fix wages and services
The administrative duties of JP's began to develop in the closing years of the 14th Century and continued until 1888. As early as 1389 they acquired powers to regulate wages and control the cost of living by fixing prices. The Act provided that victuallers 'shall have reasonable gains according to the discretion and limitations of the said Justices'. So long as the economy was predominantly rural, the pressure on both wages and prices came from such natural causes as inclement weather and poor harvests. Such factors as the cost of land and buildings hardly entered into the reckoning. The establishment of industries in the medieval 'wool' towns brought new problems with which the JP's were ill equipped to deal. Most of the new employers were in competition with the landowners for labour.
17 May 1999
Legal Qualifications of JP's
Much has been said about JP's being untrained until recently but, in fact, many landowners were members of the Inns of Court. This, however, was not to assist them in administering the criminal law but to equip them for the prudent management of their estates. Usually their study of the law did not go very deep. Shakespeare's Master Shallow and Falstaff were typical. They were roistering fellows whose fondest memories are summed up in Faistaffs line 'we have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow'. For all that, at least 50 editions of works for the guidance of Justices had been published by 1600, and so effective had their rule become, that Sir Edward Coke described it as "such a form of subordinate government for security and quiet of the realm as no part of the Christian world hath the like".
In 1576, JP's were required to build 'houses of correction' in which rogues and vagabonds could be detained. These were apprehended by village constables - unpaid parishioners conscripted for service annually.
The Reformation, followed by alternating Catholic and Protestant ascendancy, affected the Justices as well as every other section of the community. JP's had their names removed from the Commission for non-attendance at their parish church. A screening operation carried out by the bishops in 1564 revealed that of 850 JP's examined, more than half were suspected of being recusants. A purge followed, and in 1579 every JP was required to swear fidelity to the established religion. Confidence was temporarily restored, and when the Spanish Armada threatened England, the Justices again proved fully capable of maintaining the Queen's peace.