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Courts of Justice

Bedford Magistrates Courts
Bedford Magistrates Courts

By the nineteenth century, there were three types of courts for criminal to be brought to justice: Magistrates' Courts ( Quarter Sessions and Petty Sessions), Assize Courts, and the Court of King's (or Queen's) Bench.

To which court an accused was sent, depended on the crime; although there was overlap and cases could be referred between the courts.

Petty Sessions

Courts of Petty Sessions were introduced in the 18th century as there was too much work for the Quarter Sessions (which only met four times a year) to handle. Petty Sessions dealt with minor cases such as drunkenness, poaching and vagrancy.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, individual justices of the peace frequently tried summary offences (those not needing to be heard before a jury), in their own home. Many of the country houses of the gentry contained a 'justice room' for this purpose. In 1828, they become established by statute and became increasingly formalised.

After the Summary Jurisdiction Act of 1848, all summary trials had to take place at formally constituted Petty Sessions, before at least two magistrates. Meetings became more regular and laws passed that required the proceedings to be recorded. Each court had jurisdiction over a specific Local Authority area. The courts sat on a regular basis; the frequency would depend on the level of crime in the area. As today, the court had the power to remit more serious crime to a higher court for sentencing or trial.

Quarter Sessions

The principal court of the magistrates was Quarter Sessions. They were held before a 'bench' of two or more Justices of the Peace (JP's), with a jury. They could also refer capital offences and other serious or difficult cases up to the next Assize Court.

Sessions were held four times a year ("quarterly"): at Epiphany (winter), Lent (spring), Summer, and Michaelmas (autumn), in every county. The session could run for several days, depending on the number of cases. Pressure of business could lead to extra or special Quarter Sessions being called.

Many boroughs, by their charters, also ran their own Borough Sessions before magistrates appointed by the corporation. For example, Bedford had its own borough court. These borough Quarter Sessions also tried indictable offences. Until 1889, the Quarter Sessions also administered local government but as the administrative burden increased, their administrative functions were transferred to the newly created County Councils.

Assize Courts

Before 1971, most serious crimes were tried twice a year before a professional High Court Judge and a Jury. The Judges travelled on a 'circuit', covering a number of counties. They would deal with criminal cases assigned to them by the bench of county or borough justices. The courts were held when the Judges arrived in a county town.

Before 1842 the line between Assize and Quarter Sessions cases was rather blurred; an Act of that year consigned all capital offences (those that carried the death penalty) and also cases with sentences of life imprisonment, for the first offence, to the Assizes.

Circuit boundaries changed over the years but, during the period under review, the Norfolk Circuit included Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Huntingdonshire, Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk itself. In Bedford, the Assizes were usually in spring and summer.

As the workload increased, by the middle of the 19th century, in some counties the court was sitting three times a year, and each session could last several weeks. The assizes circuits had their own Clerks of Assizes, who kept all the records of the cases and sentences.

London was a special case. In 1834 the Central Criminal Court, popularly called the Old Bailey, was set up for the metropolitan area of Greater London; it was an Assizes Court.

King's (Queen's) Bench

Originally this was the king's personal court, with a variety of functions connected with protecting the interests of the Crown. Cases could be referred to it where it was believed that a fair hearing in a particular locality was impossible. It was also a court of review for magistrates, who could ask it to rule on points of law.

Judges at the Assizes normally consulted their colleagues on points of law but, in 1848, the Court for Crown Cases Reserved was set up for this.

During the nineteenth century there was no appeals procedure or court of appeals. A convicted criminal's only hope was the Royal Pardon, in practice delegated to the Home Secretary. Finally, in 1907, the Court of Criminal Appeal was established.

How different is it now?

The system described above was radically altered in 1971-2. Now magistrates' courts deal with minor offences summarily. They also make the preliminary inquiry for indictable offences which are then passed on for trial at the Crown Court.

This has replaced the old Assizes and cases can be heard either before a High Court judge, if serious, or before circuit judges, either on their own or with magistrates.

Please note, this section does not deal with Civil law courts. Also, the system described applies to England and Wales; Scotland had, and still has, a very different legal system.

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