Law: Change in the Forest: The Verderers' Court, one of the oldest in Britain, may be under threat, says Barbara Lantin

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The Independent Online
The long-awaited announcement on whether the New Forest is to receive national park status is of more than academic interest to the court that sits at its centre.

The Court of Verderers - the second oldest in the land after the coroners' courts - has met in one form or another since Norman times. It now sits in public session one Monday every other month at the Verderers Hall in Lyndhurst, Hampshire, hearing mainly planning matters and issues concerned with animal welfare in the Forest. If national park status comes, there is some disagreement whether the court can survive the changes this will bring.

'I believe that over a period of time the influence of the Verderers would be greatly diminished,' says second-generation Verderer Anthony Pasmore. His colleague David Stagg disagrees: 'I don't think any changes would touch us in the least'.

The Verderers' Court is the administrative arm and direct descendant of the Court of Swainmote, established during the reign of William the Conqueror. Although not a court of law and with no powers to fine or imprison, the Verderers' Court is taken extremely seriously by those who have dealings with it. Perhaps this has something to do with its impressive and wonderfully anachronistic opening ceremony.

Accompanying the ten Verderers into court are the agisters (who deal with the marking and welfare of forest animals) resplendent in dark green jackets and boots and light breeches. The senior agister then opens the court with a cry of: 'Oyez, oyez, oyez. All manner of persons who have any presentment to make or matter or thing to do at this Court of Verderers, let them come forward and they shall be heard. God save the Queen.'

Accident figures concerning forest animals are read and the public is invited to make representations (presentments). 'It serves a useful purpose,' believes Mr Stagg. 'Everyone has an opportunity to air their grievances.'

Esther Rantzen and her husband Desmond Wilcox may have cause to regret the availability of this opportunity. In a painfully complex and long-running case, the couple are trying to gain the freehold of a small strip of land around a dilapidated cottage on the edge of their farm at Bramshaw, in the north of the Forest.

As a quid pro quo they are offering the Forestry Commission another parcel of land in exchange. A neighbour - who is a judge - has lodged a counter-presentment on the grounds that an exchange of this kind would set a precedent and compromise the integrity of the Forest. The case has rumbled on for months. The judge has threatened writs and a judicial review if the Verderers agree to the exchange. If they do not, the Wilcoxes will not get their garden.

Most presentments are less newsworthy. Many concern grazing rights and animal welfare. It is the Verderers' job to administer the Rights of Common which permit some Forest dwellers - called Commoners - to make a living from the land, for example by grazing their ponies and cattle there or by turning out their pigs to feed on acorns and roots in the autumn. Owners must pay a 'marking fee' to the agisters, which goes towards the cost of maintaining the Verderers' Court.

But it is when planning matters arise that the Verderers can really make their presence felt. 'Nothing can be done in the way of development on the Crown lands without their consent,' explains Mr Pasmore, one of five elected Verderers (the others are appointed by various bodies including the Ministry of Agriculture and the Forestry Commission). This effectively means that no new roads can be built across the Forest.

This power was demonstrated during the battle over the Lyndhurst bypass. The Verderers, together with conservation groups, had consistently opposed Hampshire County Council's bypass plans. In 1987 the council, wearied by a succession of public inquiries and consultations, went to the extent of promoting a private parliamentary bill which fell in committee.

As a history book on the New Forest puts it: 'Had Parliament overthrown the Verderers' decision . . . the door would have been open for any organisation to circumvent the Verderers.' Mr Pasmore is more direct: 'While Dartmoor succumbed to the Okehampton bypass we knocked the Lyndhurst bypass on the head.'

However, he fears that such power will be eroded if the New Forest receives national park status. 'I can see situations where the Verderers will be lined up on one side and the park authority on the other and there will be an appeal to Parliament and we will be seen as a bumbling old lot. We won't be wiped out but our influence will be much reduced to the detriment of the Forest.'

Mr Stagg is more sanguine. 'I have more confidence in the Verderers,' he says. 'I think they would stand up for their views whatever the issue and whatever the pressure upon them. In my experience on the New Forest committee they have been very successful at swinging opinion round to their point of view.'

The other issue currently taxing Verderers' minds is whether to reconvene the court's judicial arm, Swainmote, which last met in 1979.

Among the many and varied reasons given for its abandonment are lack of demand for its services, confusion over its jurisdiction and - more interestingly - a series of debacles.

These include, reputedly, the appearance of a goat dressed to resemble the Offical Verderer and an allegation that the prosecuting solicitor had given advice to the other side in the same case.

Swainmote may yet rise from the ashes. Five Swainmote Verderers have recently been appointed by the Lord Chancellor (as they have to be both Verderers and under 60 this caused some minor problems) and local by-laws have been amended to make the court's jurisdiction clearer.

Once again, opinion is divided. Some see Swainmote as an outmoded institution best left dead and buried. 'It lost its impetus around 1670 when it stopped being a superior court,' says Mr Stagg, a local historian as well as a Verderer. 'I am not keen to see it revived.'

As a Swainmote Verderer - and therefore able to sit on the Swainmote bench - Mr Pasmore disagrees. 'There are people who make fools out of the Verderers' rulings over their animals: they would not be able to do that if they were dealt with by Swainmote and could be fined,' he believes. 'Several of my colleagues know this is happening and want something done about it. I think it should be reconvened.'

(Photograph omitted)