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

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS - Pam Ross is the au­thor of Re­search­ing Your Fam­ily His­tory (Crowood Press, 2010) and a mem­ber of AGRA.

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.

Petty 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.

Court records

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 ar­ and 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 find­my­ 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. 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. na­tion­

Above: A pros­ti­tute ap­pears be­fore a Mag­is­trates Court in Bow Street, 1820

Some larger Petty Ses­sions took place at a Mag­is­trates Court

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