FOCUS ON: JUSTICES OF THE PEACE & PETTY SESSIONS
Magistrates have been part of our legal system since the 14th century. Pam Ross looks at their history and how to find records of ancestors who had a brush with the law
We look back at part of our legal system which has been in place since the 14th century
Justices of the Peace, also known as magistrates, have been maintaining law and order in the counties of England since at least 1361. The job description might go back even further: a century earlier, Simon de Montfort had appointed Keepers of the Peace (Custodes Pacis), and even before that, in 1195, there were men sworn in ‘to assist the sheriff in the maintenance of order’.
The role of a Justice or Keeper of the Peace was mainly military in those early days but their duties evolved through the centuries. By the 1600s they were responsible for administering justice within their own county and also for overseeing the smooth running of parish matters such as the operation of the Elizabethan Poor Law; this remained the basis of how each parish dealt with its poor until the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834.
Traditionally they came from the ranks of ‘gentlemen, esquires and clergy’ who often had little or no knowledge of the law. Qualification was dependent upon the possession of land – some women with large holdings of land are even said to have been listed as Justices. In 1775 they were required to possess property of the rateable value of £100.
Justices of the Peace met in one location in each county every quarter: at Epiphany (January), Easter, Trinity (Midsummer)
Justices of the Peace – also known as magistrates – have maintained the law of England since at least 1361
and Michaelmas. They only met for a short time each month and, as the workload grew, Justices started to meet locally between these Quarter Sessions to deal with minor cases and ease the quarterly workload. These meetings became known as Petty (or Petit) Sessions.
It required at least two Justices to convene a court of Petty Sessions. There wasn’t always a handy courtroom in town so they might use a venue such as a public house (see panel below).
‘Two Justices in petty sessions’ had an enormous number of responsibilities and power within their own county. They had little administrative help with Petty Sessions, and normally little in the way of remuneration except for minimal expenses for attendance at Quarter Sessions.
It was a great honour to be chosen as a Justice of the Peace and the office endowed the holder with a large amount of additional social status but also a great deal of responsibility.
As you might expect the number and calibre of Justices of the Peace varied from county to county, as did the type of cases they took in Petty Sessions. It really was just down to the decision of the magistrates involved. It’s easy to imagine two like-minded JPs who lived near to each other dealing with quite a lot of business locally. Justices also dealt with the licensing of public houses; dissenters, both Catholic and Protestant; apprenticeships and, particularly at times of major troop movements, disputes concerning the billeting of soldiers. There’s also evidence of Justices making enquiries and collecting evidence in the intervals between Quarter Sessions.
While county Justices were generally without legal training some cities and towns had stipendiary magistrates who usually had more knowledge of the law. Whether lay or stipendiary, this system was dependent on all
the Justices of the Peace being honest and honourable men. Inevitably it was open to abuse and some became suspected of being less than upright citizens.
The changes to the Poor Law in 1834 and the development of local government as we know it today meant that the duties of Justices of the Peace gradually changed. They came to concentrate more on criminal cases in the late 19th and 20th centuries until the whole system was overhauled in 1971.
Records of early Petty Sessions can be difficult to find and their survival is patchy. Those that do survive are usually in county archives or private collections. Some are available in book form so it’s worth a search at archive.org and books.google.co.uk which also have some fascinating early handbooks such as The Justice of the Peace and Parish Officer by Richard Burn published in 1785.
From the mid-19th century, Justices were instructed to deposit with the Clerk of the Peace at the following Quarter Sessions notes of decisions made in Petty Session, so there’s more chance of survival. It’s worth looking carefully at the descriptions of Quarter Sessions records in case the two haven’t been separated.
There’s little Petty Sessions material available online, but the Irish Petty Sessions Court Registers 1828-1912 at findmypast.co.uk are proving a hit with people searching their Irish ancestry. Ireland’s common law was based on many of the same statutes as England and Wales but inevitably developed differently. Scotland also had Justices of the Peace but working within a different legal system. If your interest lies in the Justices themselves from 1665 you might find notice of their appointment in The London Gazette ( www.thegazette. co.uk). They were appointed ‘by commission’, effectively by the Crown so a record of that might also be found at The National Archives. Try typing ‘C202 Justice of the Peace’ into their Discovery catalogue found at discovery. nationalarchives.gov.uk.
Above: A prostitute appears before a Magistrates Court in Bow Street, 1820
Some larger Petty Sessions took place at a Magistrates Court