Feet of Fine

In the late 12th century a procedure evolved for ending a legal action by agreement between the parties. The agreement was known as a final concord (or fine). Originally this was a means of resolving genuine disputes, but by the middle of the 13th century the fine had become a popular way of conveying freehold property, and the legal action was usually a fictitious one, initiated with the cooperation of both parties. This procedure survived until the 1830s.

Originally, each party would be given a copy of the agreement, but in 1195 the procedure was modified, so that three copies were made on a single sheet of parchment, one on each side and one at the foot. The copies would then be separated by cutting the parchment along indented (wavy) lines as a precaution against forgery. The right and left hand copies were given to the parties and the third copy at the foot was retained by the court. For this reason the documents are known as feet of fines.

After the early 14th century, fines were always made in the Court of Common Pleas. Earlier on, they could also be made in the Exchequer and before justices in eyre.

The process of making a fine retained the bureaucratic form of a legal action. and could involve expense, delay and inconvenience. But it did have advantages that made it popular. The foot of the fine was (usually) securely preserved among the records of the court, and was therefore safe from accidental loss or forgery. In addition, a conveyance of land by fine could be much harder to challenge than one recorded only by a charter.

Another reason for the popularity of fines was that married women could participate in them without the risk of a later challenge on the grounds that they had been coerced by their husbands. As a result, married couples often used fines to convey property. Either the property could be the wife's, or else it could be the husband's, in which case her participation would ensure she could not claim dower in it after his death.