Duhaime's Law Dictionary


Poor Law Definition:

Law related to the relief of the indigent.

Poor law includes those statutes, law reports and treatises which focus on the relief of those who are poor to the point of requiring financial assistance from others, such as but not necessarily limited to the state.

The name poor law, was taken from the initiating statute, the unnamed 1535 statute at Chapter 25 of the 27th year of the Reign of Henry VIII (official legal citation: 27 Hen. 8, ch. 25).

"All Governors of Shires, Cities, Towns, Hundreds, Hamlets and Parishes, shall find and keep every aged, poor and impotent Person, which was born or dwelt three Years within the same Limit, by way of voluntary and charitable Alms in every of the same Cities and Parishes, & with such convenient Alms as shall be thought meet by their Discretion, so as none of them shall be compelled to go openly in begging. And also shall compel every sturdy Vagabond to be kept in continual Labour.

"Children under fourteen years of age, and above five, that live in Idleness, and be taken begging, may be put to service by the governors of cities, towns, & to husbandry, or other crafts or labours.

"A valiant beggar, or sturdy vagabond, shall at the first time be whipped, and sent to the place where he was born or last dwelled by the space of three Years, there to get his Living; and if he continue his roguish Life, he shall have the upper Part of the Gristle of his right ear cut off; and if after that he be taken wandering in idleness, or doth not apply to his Labour, or is not in Service with any Master, he shall be adjudged and executed as a Felon."

Then, in 1601, the Poor Relief Act.

In  modern parlance, the entire body of welfare or social assistance law would be poor law.

In the 1700s, poor law became a specialty with the appearance of law reports which reported exclusively on poor law cases, such as the eight volumes of Foley's (1758), Bott and Pratt (1827), Griffith (1831), Lumley (1840), Archbold (1858) and Paterson (1864).

Poor law is difficult to develop as the potential litigants do not have the resources to hire lawyers and advance poor law in the courts. Thus, there are very few law reports today that can be classified as poor law (compare, for example, with the plethora of DUI or drunk driving law reports).

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