Hempstead Convention of 1665 and Duke’s Laws

Fulfilling his promise to the English settlers, Governor Richard Nicoll called a convention in Hempstead, Long Island, on March 1, 1665. Each of the sixteen English towns on Long Island and the Westchester County towns sent two representatives and some of the Dutch towns also participated. Because the Duke of York had power under the King’s patent to set up a legal system based on English law, Matthias Nicoll, an eminent lawyer and Secretary of the Colony, compiled a code of law that became known as the Duke’s Laws (Original /Transcript). It was compilation based on elements of English and Dutch law as well as the codes of the New England colonies. It provided for trial by jury and a proportional taxation on property. The Duke’s Laws continued in force in New York until repealed by the Assembly of 1683. Initially, the Duke’s Laws applied in the three ridings of Yorkshire — Long Island, Staten Island, and Westchester — but on June 12, 1665, Governor Nicoll promulgated the New York City Charter that extended the code to New York City and set up a system of government there consisting of a Mayor, Aldermen and Sheriff.

The Duke’s Laws established a Court of Sessions consisting of the magistrates of the ridings that in addition to civil and criminal cases, heard appeals from decisions of the town courts. The Court of Sessions held term three times a year in each riding and where the judgment involved less than twenty pounds sterling, its decision was final. Judgments exceeding that amount could be appealed to the Court of Assizes. The Court of Assizes was held once a year in New York City, and in addition to original civil and criminal jurisdiction, it had appellate jurisdiction from the orders of the inferior courts. The Court was composed of the Governor, the Council, and the magistrates of each town. Capital cases could be heard only in the Court of Assizes or by a specially convened Court of Oyer and Terminer. In some instances an appeal could be taken from the New York Court of Assizes to the royal court in London. The first session of the Court of Assizes was held at the Fort in New York, on the last Thursday of September in 1665.

From the time of the Hempstead Convention, the English settlers in Yorkshire had protested that the Duke’s Laws did not provide for representative government. In 1669, when Nicoll returned to England and Francis Lovelace became Governor, the inhabitants of the English towns again presented a petition for an assembly of delegates to advise the Governor and Council upon laws to be enacted for the common good. The petition was denied, but the Court of Assizes, although judicial rather than legislative in nature, began the practice of suggesting law reforms to the Governor and his Council. The Court of Assizes continued until it was abolished by an act of the Assembly in 1684.



Abstracted from: Henry Wilson Scott. The Courts of the State of New York: their history, development and jurisdiction (1909)

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