Magistrates and Judges
In the 19th, century the passing of sentences and the punishing of criminals was carried out either by the Justices of the Peace/ Magistrates for summary and less serious indictable offences or by High Court Circuit Judges, who presided over the more serious crimes, including capital offences.
Lay Magistrates or Justices of the Peace
Lay magistrates, or Justices of the Peace, date back to the 12th century, when Richard I commissioned certain knights to preserve the peace in unruly areas. They were known as Keepers of the Peace, acquiring the title of Justices of the Peace in 1361, by which time they had authority to arrest suspects, investigate alleged crimes and punish offenders. The act provided that JPs should meet to conduct local business four times a year. This was the origin of Quarter Sessions.
For centuries, they also had local administrative responsibilities. They fixed wages, built and controlled roads and bridges, and oversaw other local services. Those appointed to the Commission were usually land owners or men of great substance, whose social position and economic power meant their authority would not be questioned. As landowners, the JPs had the reputation of being particularly tough on poachers.
Usually their study of the law did not go very deep and 'Stipendiary magistrates' were introduced in the mid-eighteenth century in London. They were legally qualified, either as barristers or solicitors. This was largely to replace the corrupt JP's. In the early 19th century they were also appointed to some of the other large metropolitan areas to complement, not to replace, the lay bench.
The movement of population to the towns, in the 19th century, saw the 'county families' move out of the newly urbanised districts into neighbouring countryside and, in the second half of the 18th Century, a large number of clergymen served as Justices to make up the numbers. Many of these clerical Justices played an important part in improving conditions in county gaols. In 1832, of the 5,300 active JPs, one in every four was in holy orders.
The 'Circuit' Judges
Whereas the JP's or Magistrates had only local responsibilities, a circuit or high court judge could preside over legal matters brought to court in any location. And, just like today, they also had a professional grounding in the law.
The year 1286 saw the start of a judiciary with professional, legal experience when a serjeant (high ranking defender or advocate) became a judge. For many years after this, serjeants were selected as judges until they were overtaken in popularity by barristers and solicitors.
During the turbulent 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, Judges stood apart from political issues and were largely unaffected by the changes in government. By the early Stuart period, assize judges on the six circuits in England, were mainly dealing with the most serious crimes not normally handled by the local Quarter Sessions. This situation remained into the 19th century.
Although specific punishments available depended on the offence for which the defendant was convicted, the judges had considerable flexibility in choosing punishments, often leading to a haphazard and inconsistent sentencing across the country.
In trial cases where lawyers were not present (a common occurrence in the early 19th century), judges also played a major role in conducting trials. They examined witnesses and the accused. Their summing up of the case often clearly stated their views on what the potential outcome should be. Sometimes judges would also place pressure on juries, asking them how a verdict had been reached or asking them to reconsider it.