The Office of the Custos evolved from Jamaica’s colonial past and can be traced back to the fourteenth century England when in 1391 King Richard II issued the Grand Commission appointing Custodes and Justices of the Peace to assist in maintaining law and order in the counties.
The office subsequently merged into that of the Lord Lieutenancy of each county. Appointments to this position were made by Royal Commission under the Reserve Forces Act, 1980. Each Lord Lieutenant was also appointed by the Lord Chancellor as the Custos Rotulorum or Keeper of the Rolls.
In Jamaica, the first mention of the office appears in the Legislative Council Minutes of the 28th day of July, 1668 in an Ordinance dealing with the Orderly Proceedings of the Courts within the island.
There, the holder of this office was described as the first citizen of the parish appointed by the Governor as his representative to assist in the maintenance of good order and discipline in the parish and upholding the rule of law. The first Custos mentioned by name was Henry Morgan as the Custos of Port Royal during the Governorship of the Earl of Carlisle in 1680. Then and thereafter the duties and powers at various times included:
- Custos Rotulorum or Keeper of the Roll of the Justices of the Peace who preside at Petty Sessions Court and being the Chief Magistrate for the parish.
- To receive the Sovereign, any representative of the royal family, His Excellency The Governor as representing the sovereign when within the precincts of the parish.
- To recommend to the Governor from time to time ‘gentlemen’ for commission as Justices as the parish required.
- As a prerequisite, the holder [the Custos] must be a Justice of the Peace and have dealt with such minor criminal charges as are within his jurisdiction.
- An ex-officio member of the Parochial Board and in this capacity could exercise very beneficial influence. He was required to attend the meetings of the Board as often as possible.
- Required from time to time to visit the hospitals, poorhouses and other institutions including every prison in the parish and to discover any abuse therein and report the same to the Governor. This was aimed at ensuring that the affairs of these institutions were conducted properly.
- Except in the parish of Kingston, to appoint one or more polling places at all elections and one or more persons to keep the poll at the elections of the Vestrymen (now Parish Councillors) and the Church Wardens (that is the Church of England or Anglican denomination).
- Be the chairman of the Board of Highways and Bridges in the parish.